Hell House book review (Richard Matheson)

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 readAs Ben Fischer says, “Hell House doesn’t mind a guest or two. Anyone can stay here if they don’t mind fun and games.”

What’s on tap

Too much to do, and not enough time. Here’s a list of things I have planned for the next couple of months:

Review of Richard Matheson’s novel Hell House. I’m very familiar with this book and wanted to review it, but haven’t read it in a few years. The review, which will be a lengthy one, will be in podcast form, posted on my YouTube channel, which I’ll share on the blog and Twitter.

Watch and review Hammer’s The Mummy as part of the second annual Hammer-Amicus blogathon, hosted by Barry Cinematic and Realweegiemidget. This will be a written review, posted here on the blog in mid-June.

Read and review Ray Russell’s novel Incubus. I started this last year and stopped about a third of the way through. I thought I could pick up where I left off, but I had forgotten too much.

Read and review Earnest Henham’s novel The Feast of Bacchus, a weird fiction, haunted house novel from the very early 20th century.

I’ve avoided contemporary fiction since the early ’90’s, but since I’m in the mood for more haunted house stories, my summer reading will be Douglas Clegg’s Harrow series (the first three), Scott Thomas’ Kill Creek, and Mark Lukens’ Devil’s Island.

And what of my own work? Regarding the first novel, all the chapters are in place, but work remains to be done. The second novel is undergoing restructuring, and, as much as I’d like to work on it, the first book, at this point, is more important and deserving of my attention. Neither one is a light, breezy, beach read. They’re both dense, complex, and psychologically dark. Occasional sabbaticals are needed.


A Taste of Evil (1971)

A young woman returns home from a lengthy stay in an overseas psychiatric facility after being brutally assaulted as a child. Can she confront and overcome her demons, or is her sanity once again slipping away?

In a prologue, a young girl provides a voice-over during a garden party on her family’s expansive estate. The scene shifts to a playhouse in the woods on the property, built by her father. The girl, Susan, is drawing when the silhouetted figure of a man appears in the doorway. She can’t see his face due to the position of the sun, and he refuses to answer when she asks who it is. He advances, the sounds of a struggle are heard, the girl screams. ToE1

Seven years later, Susan, now a young woman, returns home after spending years in a European psychiatric hospital. While driving home from the airport with her mother, Miriam, their conversation provides exposition; Susan was catatonic for two years after being raped, and she’s still blocking the identity of her attacker. Her father died while she was hospitalized, and her mother married an old friend of the family, Harold Jennings, who’s already imbibing when Susan and Miriam arrive at the house. Later that night, Susan hears her mother and step-father arguing before he angrily storms out. The following morning, Miriam tells Susan he’s gone away on business. Susan begins to reacquaint herself with the grounds and the only remaining servant from the old days, John, the caretaker.

It’s not long before strange things begin to happen. Susan hears someone moving around the house at night, and she sees a shadowy figure standing on the lawn when looking out her bedroom window. One afternoon, when she walks to the playhouse, she’s stopped in her tracks at the sound of rustling in nearby bushes, frightened when no one responds to her calls. Things take a stranger turn when she awakens one night to the sound of her bath running. Going to investigate, she finds Harold’s drowned body in the tub, causing her to faint. When she regains consciousness, she’s being attended to by Dr. Michael Lomas, whose family was friendly with hers back in the day. Much to Susan’s dismay, there’s no trace of Harold’s dead and water-logged body.

Odd things continue to happen. Doors are heard opening and closing, breathing emanates from a darkened doorway, and step-father Harold keeps showing up dead, then disappearing, which is only seen by Susan, who’s quite surprised when Harold phones to say he’s coming home. When he does, a set of circumstances lead the terrified Susan to take drastic action in a setting reminiscent of the attack all those years ago. A Taste of Evil was written by Jimmy Sangster, known for his many Hammer Horror films, who admitted he recycled the screenplay from the ten-year-old Hammer movie Scream of Fear. It was produced by Aaron Spelling, who already had a resume of made-for-TV movies and series, but wasn’t quite the household name yet. The movie was directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, another television veteran, who would go on to direct the made-for-TV movie ratings blockbuster The Night Stalker the following year.

The cast is a small one, but boasts some known names and faces. Barbara Parkins (Anne in Valley of the Dolls), plays Susan. She manages to convey she’s a young woman determined to heal, but also maintains a touch of the child in her voice without sounding childish. John Shea plays the somewhat slow-witted caretaker, John, the least developed character who probably needed the most fleshing out, there’s a number of unanswered questions with him. William Windom is seen too briefly as Harold, but I liked his initial scenes. The ever dependable Roddy McDowall plays Dr. Lomas. One of my favorite scenes is when Susan pays him a visit on his day off, wanting to talk about the odd occurrences. He’s tinkering with a classic car while they talk and, even though he states he’s not a psychiatrist, sounds exactly like one while they converse. Last, but certainly not least, is Barbara Stanwyck as Miriam. Her performance may not seem like much in the first two acts, but come the third, she pulls out all the stops and really delivers, most notably during what’s essentially a monologue.

The movie hits a lot of the usual Gothic notes; large mansion, expansive estate, sheer curtains fluttering on windy nights, a thunderstorm, strange noises and sightings, and a young woman searching for answers. Though average, the movie is enjoyable, but certainly requires suspension of disbelief; there are a few plot holes along the way, with one or two edging into sink hole territory. Time constraints obviously hampered both character development and interaction between characters, which would have added a welcome, complex layer to the proceedings. It could be argued the movie is more about creating a mood, but there’s also some weighty subject matter at the movie’s core, not uncommon for the era.

The ’70’s was the decade in which made-for-TV movies were king, and I didn’t regret revisiting this one. I saw it as a kid several times back then, and there were certain scenes, like the menacing silhouette in the playhouse doorway, that I’ve never forgotten. A Taste of Evil is worth a watch if you’re a fan of Stanwyck, McDowall, or ’70’s TV movies.


Another unexpected turn

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned I was getting a new proof of my in-progress novel, due to the changes and other work I had done on the manuscript during December and January. I was looking forward to receiving it. I wanted to see how the color change to the cover worked out, but more importantly, I wanted to read those troublesome scenes I had worked on and slayed.

When I received the proof, the cover wasn’t exactly as I’d hoped, but the corrections I need to make are simple. The manuscript, however, was a disappointment. It’s a curious thing; two sections I believed I had made great strides in, turned out to be awful. Another portion was about what I thought it would be; not great, but not terrible, it would need some fine tuning. The last thing I worked on ended up reading the best, surprise, surprise. Go figure.

The real tragedy in all this, though, is that I have developed an intense loathing for the work. I despise it. The sub-par drivel I read smothered all creativity and interest in writing anything at all. I tried to focus on a different story. I thought about it for a day or two, it’s an interesting little tale, but my interest waned the minute I tried to do any kind of work on it, no matter how simple.

My inner critic is a harsh, blunt, bitch who pulls no punches. Hack is a favorite taunt, which always puts me in mind of Sade’s advice that those “who wish to write but have no aptitude for it would be better off making shoes for ladies and boots for men.” Hello, I’m considering becoming a cobbler. The quote, by the way, was part of a scathing rebuttal to a critic, whom Sade deemed a hack.

With a lack of enthusiasm, I turned my attention to another project, one in need of extensive work. The plan was to gut about 80%, rewrite most of what remained, and come up with fresh material. I started a new document, copying and pasting certain chapters from the original draft, nothing more than busy work, really. I ended up transferring more chapters than I thought were salvageable, as well as new notes I had typed up several months back. In all, a little over 98,000 words. Of course, a lot needs to be deleted or changed, but looking over those notes, I felt that sliver of excitement again.

I’m a slow writer, I work when I can, but that means living with a project for a very long time. For me, the adage ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ applies to my situation. As much as I may love a work, I need to step back once in a while. In some ways, it’s like family on major holidays; you enjoy spending time with them, for the most part, but it’s exhausting, and you can’t wait to get the hell away from them and hang out with other people.


Manuscript organization

As a story grows and becomes more concise, the working manuscript can become difficult to navigate. I find this especially true the deeper I get into a project. I have a few methods for keeping track of things and getting them where they belong.

Transcribed audio notes. I’m big on recording, whether it’s quick thoughts on a bit of dialogue or flash of inspiration for a scene, to marathon brainstorming sessions for working out plot points or sorting through an obstacle. Early in a project, I’ll type them in a separate document, then copy and paste into the relevant chapter. These notes can include dialogue that needs little to no reworking, and anything from basic to heavily detailed ideas on how a scene needs to play out. I sometimes discuss subtext. The great thing is that I use the notes as writing prompts. Repetition occurs often at this stage, but it gets addressed later.

Highlighting. Ninety-nine percent of the time, those notes aren’t perfect. When I put them in my working manuscript, I need to differentiate them from the well thought out, well written parts. Enter highlighting. I’m partial to ‘classic blue’ from the old days, so that’s my go-to (hint: the hex color code is #CFE7F5). I highlight notes, half-formed paragraphs, or portions that need work. I like the light blue because it’s easy on the eyes, yet still easy to spot when scrolling through page after page of text. When I order early proofs of my incomplete book, I leave those highlighted paragraphs in place. The color isn’t so dark that I can’t read the text on the page, but the light gray boxes are noticeable when riffling through pages.

The shuffle. Remember how I mentioned repetition before? That’s where what I call the shuffle comes in. Since those partial ideas are highlighted, I can scan over them and begin to put similar ideas one after the other by cutting and pasting. I also put things in the logical order they’re meant to occur. After that, I start to eliminate the duplicates, choosing the best written, or combining elements of several. I refer to this step as either winnowing, whittling, or parsing down, removing the highlighting when appropriate. It’s not unusual during these two steps for me to start writing; as things become more cohesive in written form in front of me, I’m prompted to continue the thought.

Highlighters. Not to be confused with highlighting, discussed above. I’m talking the physical highlighter markers. When proofing a hard copy, I’ll use one color to mark the easy items; simple punctuation, a word to cut, etc. If need be, I’ll write a quick correction in pen on a sticky note with a number, which I’ll jot in the margin of the sentence in my proof. If I have something pitiful that’s in need of work, I generally make a bracket around the paragraphs that need surgery.

Flair pens. This is a new bit of fun for me. My most recent proof copy (already obsolete) had a lot of notes that were all over the place in a couple of chapters. It was getting a bit overwhelming. I picked up a couple packages of different colored Flair pens for some precise organizing. I needed to arrange the sequence of events in those sections, but with the notes scattered, I had to easily identify what went where. I sat down with the proof and my pens, combing over the pages. I assigned a specific bracket color and letter to sections that belonged together for one part; for instance ‘A’ in sky blue. The next section was ‘B’ in magenta, followed by ‘C’ paragraphs in green. With that sorted out, I could quickly shuffle the paragraphs on my computer file by referencing the physical book.

It may seem a bit meticulous, but it’s a system that works for me. Over the last two months, I’ve made great headway, inching ever closer to completing the novel.

Next proof

It’s getting to be that time again. Since about Christmas, I’ve done a decent amount of work on the novel; minor edits and corrections, more substantial revisions, and writing necessary scenes that only existed in note form. Since I don’t work on chapters in chronological order, it’s easy to forget what I’ve changed or written. The novel is a lengthy one, and I’ve mentioned before how buying proof copies proves more economical in the long run. Even though I got my last proof at the very beginning of December, I’m already in need of another.

I’m looking forward to this one. Reading the important changes I made on paper, instead of a computer screen, will be beneficial;  easier to read, proof, and polish. Last time out, I tried a glossy cover instead of matte. Scratches became visible very quickly, and the laminate was peeling from the book edge on the back cover.

I decided to change the colors. Instead of a black background with gold text, I’ve moved to blue with silver. This next proof, which I’ll order in about ten days, will be matte. There’s still a lot to be done with the manuscript, but I continue to make headway.


New year, same challenges

A new year has begun, and over all, the preceding one ended well. The long Christmas weekend afforded me a chance to tackle something I’d been avoiding for months; a revision to a key scene in a pivotal chapter. It took about 2-1/2 to 3 days, but I excised (possibly exorcised) all the painfully bad content from the initial draft, and replaced with infinitely better material. The core actions of the scene remain the same, but the words used to tell it had to change. I was riding high after that, and looking forward to keeping the trend going over the next four day weekend over New Years. I did put in the work, but the payoff wasn’t nearly as satisfying. What I accomplished was small, but essential, things that contribute to the end game. They just aren’t very visible, which can trick you into thinking you didn’t do anything valuable.

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances not related to writing, the following week found me utterly useless as far as the book was concerned. Every time I opened the manuscript, no matter what chapter or section I looked at, I loathed and immediately closed the file. It wasn’t until the weekend was nearly over that I got my head back in the right place.

Sometimes, you have to mix up your routine. I’ve alternated between tackling difficult portions, doing simple proofing, and consolidating duplicate notes. This week, I’ve employed the slow but steady approach of condensing notes, with a goal of at least an hour a night, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant the work. It all adds up in the end.

Making progress

It’s a fact; when writing, an author always comes up against obstacles. Some of these can be relatively small things, easily resolved. Coming up with the ‘just right’ name of a town, or character, for instance. Other things are more weighty; trying to figure out how to get from point A to point C when point B is eluding you. Some time and thought will eventually solve that issue. Then there are those things that you know are in dire need of revising, reworking. You have the notes, the ideas, you know what changes need to be made, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it, because the early draft of that scene or chapter provokes cringes you didn’t think were humanly possible. What to do?

I’ve been running up against that last situation for a while now. I had a scene, a rather important scene, nay, a very important scene, the first draft of which, in retrospect, was trash. Embarrassingly bad trash. A few months ago, I made changes to the very beginning of the chapter, that was the easy part, but every time I attempted to work on what followed, I managed to find something else to do. Finally, I bit the bullet. I decided no matter how painful, no matter how many times I might wince or roll my eyes in disgust, I had to do the work, distasteful as it would be.

I took advantage of the four-day holiday weekend. After catching up with small edits to preceding chapters, I confronted my nemesis, my personal Goliath. I was determined to get a workable, readable draft of the chapter before the weekend was out. And I did it, finishing up late Christmas afternoon. When I read the early draft, written years ago, I realized it had a crudeness and ugliness to it that may have worked, initially, but the story has evolved into something else. Something far better, and the revisions I made completely change the tone of the scene, so it now aligns with both my overall vision and other existing chapters, not to mention, it dovetails perfectly with the following scene, a pivotal point in the book that ends the chapter.

By the end of the three day endeavor, I was exhausted, but it was worth the undertaking. Slaying that giant, moving that boulder blocking my path, sorting through the clutter of words, keeping what was useful and discarding the rest, was a great way to wrap up the year.


KDP Cover template generator

Lately, I’ve noticed more people on forums or message boards talking about print book cover errors or sizing issues on KDP Print. They ask for help and more often than not, the answer they’re given doesn’t solve their problem. I find this strange, since the most straight-forward answer is out there, if you take the time to look. I’m talking about one piece covers, not separate jpgs uploaded to the Cover Creator.

CreateSpace had a book cover template generator, in which you’d input some basic information, and a template for a one piece wrap around cover would be created for download. It would add in for the bleed, and take the guesswork out of spine width, making it an easier process for the author and/or artist. KDP Print has a template generator, too, but it’s a little bit buried on KDP’s website. Below is both a step-by-step with screenshots, and a quick video explaining where to find the template creator.

Enter kdp.amazon.com/cover-templates

You’re now at the Paperback Cover Template page. On the far left is where you input your information. First, enter your trim size (the finished size of your book) from the pull down menu. Next, enter the page count. This is another area where some people make mistakes. This is for the entire number of pages in your document, including all front and back matter. Your word processing program will have a page count (in LibreOffice it’s in the bottom left of the Writer application). Or, if you’ve already exported to PDF, your previewer or Adobe reader will tell you how many pages. Enter the total page count. Finally, enter the type of paper you want for your book’s interior. This is important, since creme is heavier than white and will affect the width of the spine. Once all your info is entered, click the yellow Download cover template button.Screencap3

The template generates immediately and downloads as a zip file. Open that and you’ll find two files in your folder, a PDF and a PNG file. You can open either one in Photoshop, Illustrator, or other program to create your cover.

When you set-up your title on KDP, make sure your trim, page count, and paper color are the same as you entered for your cover template. KDP Print defaults to 6 X 9 trim size, for instance, and you’ll notice in the above photo, the template creator defaults to white for the paper color. Make sure everything matches, and you shouldn’t have a problem.