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.”

Still in a writing rut

I haven’t done any work on the novel. I considered working on another idea, a horror novella, something lean and mean. Different. I made some notes one day, but I didn’t like the direction it was going. I need to think about it some more. I did, however, mock up a fairly decent cover that conveys horror/suspense. That counts for something, right?

I finally managed to get another book review out. It’s posted to my YouTube channel or you can find it here on the website under Podcasts.

“Whatever happened to that Silver Brook redevelopment plan? Wasn’t someone going to revitalize the resort, make the area shine again?” Connie asked.

“It was a disaster before it started. Herb Fenley and Lou Klaussen approached me about it. They were looking for investors. I turned them down, I know a dog when I see one. Then they promised me the moon and the MIlky Way. Exclusive listings of luxury condos and a handful of mansions they had planned. I told them Silver Brook is a limbo, a no-man’s land. Nobody would willingly live there, at least, nothing human.”

“Rob, don’t start that shit —”

“I’m not starting anything,” he soberly replied, and she thought he paled slightly. “The whole project fell through when Herb Fenley disappeared…during an excursion to Silver Brook.”

 

Books and non-books

Checking in with a quick update. With the reissues out of the way, I have some time I can devote to other things. One of them is reading, something I haven’t done much of over the years. Yes, years. The problem was I couldn’t find books I liked. Except for horror, I’m not much of a genre reader, and I gave up on contemporary fiction somewhere around 1992 (literary fiction that seemed only to meander and thrillers that were too formulaic). I read some 18th century plays, a penny dreadful or two, then basically gave up reading altogether.

But I wanted to read. Something new, different, that I would potentially like, rather than something I’d want to throw across the room or complain about wasting my money on. I finally found some authors that filled the void, Ray Russell and Charles Beaumont. Both 20th century authors and Chicago natives (curious, that), who wrote horror and weird fiction. Russell’s works tend to have invisible layers. When I’m finished reading, I find myself sitting and thinking and those layers slowly start to become visible. Many stories are like little puzzle boxes that, surprisingly, can have more than one resolution.

I’ve started to read the first of three Beaumont collections. I’ve read three distinctly different short stories and they were all good, ranging from horrific, to fantastically whimsical, to slightly gritty and depressing. An interesting observation I’ve made is that Russell tends to be careful with language, meaning he doesn’t usually use curses or obscenities. If he does, it’s rare and rather mild. Beaumont will use expletives more liberally, but not gratuitously, they feel right for the situation. I really want to savor these Beaumont stories, so I’m only reading a few at a time, and I have one other Russell book to read. Reviews will be forthcoming. Russell’s tend to take more time to review because I have to think about them more, and oftentimes, as I’m thinking, I hit on another aspect I hadn’t considered before. Those invisible layers again.

That’s the good news. The bad…I haven’t been motivated to write. I have ideas, I have notes, I have a pile of things that need to be addressed. But, damn it, the motivation isn’t there. I’m considering making some changes. Handwriting some things, moving to a different work area, something, anything, to jump start the process. Maybe I’ll become so frustrated and angry with myself, I’ll start working again out of sheer spite. Here’s hoping.

Nightmare Alley, book review

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, is a 1946 novel that revolves around carny-turned-charlatan Stanton Carlisle and his rise in the ‘spook’ racket, that is to say, spiritualism. The story starts well; the first chapter begins by painting an indelible image of a sideshow geek in a traveling carnival. This is followed by the thoughts of the other acts in the ‘ten-in-one,’ the strongman, a dwarf, the tattooed man, etc., as a crowd shuffles by. One of these sideshow acts is Stan Carlisle, a young man who does magic tricks, but longs for something bigger and better. By cozying up to slightly older carny Zeena, who does a mentalist act, Stan learns the tricks of her trade, including the use of codes and how to cold read. Continue reading

The Heirs of Moliére

(Originally posted to LiveJournal March 2012)

Just finished reading The Heirs of Molière, a collection of four French verse plays. It wasn’t a bad read. The first play, The Absent-Minded Lover was okay. I guess. I had a difficult time suspending my disbelief in regards to the title character. I simply couldn’t believe a person could be that flaky and survive in the world. Too stupid to live. It did have its amusing moments, though.

The Conceited Count revolves around a noble set to marry the daughter of a bourgeoisie. The count is exceedingly proud; take Mr. Darcy’s pride and pump it up on steroids. Yet, all he has is his name and titles, the wealth was lost in an old family scandal. There’s a “surprise reveal” at the end regarding a character, which I saw coming a mile away.
Continue reading