Physicist Dr. Lionel Barrett, who researches parapsychology, is hired by the old, wealthy, and dying Rudolph Deutsch to determine if there is life after death. He can conduct his research at the Belasco House, aka Hell House, which Deutsch has purchased. It’s a place with a dark and violent history, with two previous investigations ending in tragedy. Barrett will receive $100,000 for completing the task. The catch is, he has only a week to deliver his findings. Barrett bristles when told two mediums have also been hired to accompany him, Florence Tanner, a mental medium and Spiritualist, and Ben Fischer, the only participant of the last investigation to make it out alive and sane, and barely at that.
Several days later, Barrett, his wife, Edith, and the psychics arrive at the Belasco house. The mansion is located in Maine, in an isolated valley perpetually filled with fog. The forbidding property includes a tarn, Bastard’s Bog, that reeks of decay. Every window of the house has been bricked up. The four settle in, and, over dinner, Fischer provides information on the owner, Emeric Belasco, and the tragedy that occurred in the house.
An illegitimate child, Belasco was a bad seed from the start, displaying psychopathic tendencies at an early age. As an adult, he was a charismatic, but intimidating, man, his imposing height earning him the nickname the Roaring Giant. He inherited his father’s millions and built the house, populating it with guests whom he slowly corrupted. Introducing them to libertinism, he encouraged them to engage in any and every debauch and perversity they could conceive of, while he retreated to the shadows to observe the chaos he wrought. Everyone died, in horrific fashion, but Belasco was never found. It’s believed those who died haunt the premises.
The investigation soon gets underway, with phenomena occurring almost immediately. The longer the group remains in the house, the more frequent and intense the phenomena becomes. Their personalities also begin to change. Eventually a confrontation ensues, and the riddle of the haunting is revealed.
Hell House is a good entry in the sub-genre of haunted house horror novels. There are some general similarities to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but those similarities are soon forgotten, and Hell House comes into its own. The novel can be taken at face value; a book about a haunted house, but it’s more than that, delving into the psychological. It’s not quite a full character study, but it’s close to it. The single location and limited characters (including the house and whatever resides in it) make for a more intimate novel, and Matheson spools out information on the characters little by little, even as late as the last quarter of the book. All the characters, the flesh-and-blood ones at least, mirror, or are representative of, a physical characteristic or personality trait of Belasco’s, or an event from his life.
Belasco, in part, was inspired by Aleister Crowley, but I perceived a much stronger connection to de Sade. No doubt Matheson’s research for the 1969 avant-garde movie he penned, De Sade, influenced the novel, and the more conversant you are with Sade, the more of that influence you see, (the Belasco house becomes, essentially, the Château de Silling from The 120 Days of Sodom). Sex is a big part of the story, which seems only fitting with the Crowley and Sade influences at work.
I’ve read this book roughly half a dozen times, so I can’t say it scared me, although I recall a feeling of creepiness in several moments during my first read; the description of ectoplasm emerging and enveloping the medium, and whatever inhabited the steam room. Matheson’s style is very much a product of its time; straightforward, with no ornamental, florid prose, and although I don’t advocate the abuse of a thesaurus, there were a few words, short phrases, or combination of words that were repeated a bit too much (hiss/hissed/hissing, octagonal table).
The last 40 — 60 pages have the weakest moments. A few of the things meant to frighten came across as silly, and an incident of deus ex machina was a let-down. The finale, unfortunately, is somewhat anti-climactic. Although I understand what Matheson was trying to convey, I felt it was too simply worded, resulting in it feeling flat and unsatisfying. Different phrasing, and perhaps the realization by one of the characters how parts of their lives mirrored Belasco’s, could have provided an ending with more impact.
Even with the few disappointments, I still recommend Hell House for those wanting to spend some time on a haunted house read. As Ben Fischer says, “Hell House doesn’t mind a guest or two. Anyone can stay here if they don’t mind fun and games.”