What a shame. Here I sit without a massive house filled with a malevolent spirit to drive them to wanton lust.
“Hell House” by Richard Matheson is good in most respects. It is a haunted house story so there are some prerequisites that must be met. First, of course, the house itself. Belasco house fits the bill perfectly. Built by a wealthy recluse who spent his fortune and adulthood descending into studying debauchery and all forms of carnal sin. Second, we have to have the reason to be there. Enter the second wealthy person who now owns the property and wants it studied. Mr. Deutsch fills this role, though to be honest the motivation for the foray into “Hell House” is a bit muddy. Does Deutsch want to verify it is haunted or does he want the place cleansed of the evil spirit(s)? Third we have to have the haunting force (or hoax depending on the story). “Hell House” certainly does have a haunting force. Finally, we have to have our Scooby-gang who will reside within the house for some length of time. “Hell House” provides a plucky quartet who thinks they are up to the challenge.
The setting is wonderful. Matheson gives the reader the secluded manor devoid of life, light, or love. As is usually the case, the place is beyond large. It dwarfs the temporary inhabitants with a grand hall, a pornographic chapel, umpteen bedrooms, an industrial sized kitchen and theater. The scale spooks the reader as there is no way the place can be cozy or homey. Often Matheson describes the place as “museum like.” Museums can be pleasant (this one isn’t), but they certainly aren’t places you want to live.
The motivation to be in the house tends to be secondary in haunted house stories. In this case the cast of characters, except Edith, were all eager to get a shot at Hell House. Fischer finally admits he’s been dead for thirty years since the house beat him before. He seems reluctant, but he too realizes how important it is for him to face the place, or die trying. So, Deutsch’s role is minimal (and even less so as the reader discovers when they try to contact him).
The haunting force is one of the big twists in this book. Florence thinks she knows what it is. Barrett thinks he knows what it is. Edith doesn’t know and doesn’t care, she’s just there as baggage for Barrett, afraid to be alone. Fischer doesn’t know what the haunting force is and he doesn’t really want to know. Again, as with his motivation to return, he eventually comes around. Suffice it to say, the cast holds up their end of the tale.
So, the core elements of the tale are there, and are solid. Why am I not raving? What is it about this story that held it back from being over-the-top classic in my mind?
Sorry, it was the sex. Not just the sex, but the overt hot and cold flavors Matheson gave to Edith and Florence specifically. The classic “virginal” female character mold was once again reinforced with this story. It is laughable, unfair, and makes for painful reading. Edith and Florence aren't allowed to have healthy normal interest in or expressions of sexual desire. They fit the no-sex equals good girl, sex of any kind must be caused by the devil mold. Had Matheson engaged Barrett and Fischer with similar lust issues due to the haunting(s) it would not have bothered me.
Barrett would have been a perfect candidate too. Unable to perform sexually due to having polio as a child, Barrett is effectively incapable of sexual arousal or performance. Had Matheson teased and tormented him by providing an erection and coming at Florence or even forcefully coming onto Edith, the sexual aspects of the haunting events would have hit harder. Edith’s rape (or near rape) at the hands of her father would have hit her extra hard if Barrett, roughly her father’s age, had attacked her.
Instead the sexual elements of this story with Florence’s visions of “Daniel” and Edith coupling with her, of Edith coming onto Fischer multiple times, of breasts being revealed and mutilated, and nude strolls happening semi-regularly (but only to the women) seemed border-line exploitative. I write those words with pain. I don’t like to use the word exploitative as it implies a sense of crossing a line which implies the need for censorship. I violently oppose censorship. This story just seemed slanted in a very anti-female way.
The counter argument to this, of course, is that Belasco was lusting after the ladies. If Fischer’s brief history of the house from page 54 to page 61 would have only included wanton sexual depravity I would have gone along with the line of attack directed at Florence and Edith. But Fischer shares that along with the orgies and sexual depravity Belasco killed animals out of curiosity, drug addiction, loss of control, mutilation, murder, necrophilia, cannibalism, eating virgins by starving leopards, unnecessary surgery, swapping animal organs for human, and eventually death from disease, suicide or murder.
Some of these things appear to the foursome who battle Hell House, but the focus seems singularly on the breaking of the women sexually. It doesn’t ruin the story, but I was hoping for all the characters to face more private hells. Florence gives in entirely too easily to the whining of “Daniel” Belasco. She is the strongest of the characters in many ways, and for whining and pleading to be all that convinces her to let a spirit lie with her just seemed too convenient. Having pity sex with a ghost seemed out of character in the extreme.
Edith’s depravity is more believable. She is incredibly repressed due to childhood trauma and simple medical fact in the form of an impotent husband. Her slow walk down Belasco’s path is better written and hits the reader harder.
The attacks should have better reflected the history lesson Fischer gives and also the exhaustive alphabetized list of phenomenon catalogued on pages 45 and 46. Not everything needed to be in this story, mind you, but more of it could have been there.
Overall “Hell House” does a great job of drawing the reader in and the revelations as the story crescendos are worth the read. It was a nice twist that Matheson allows for multiple explanations and philosophies to exist in this universe. Again, don’t want to spoil the fun for those who haven’t read it. Is there a little too much separating of the characters so bad things can befall them? Yes, there is. There’s also a big focus paid to characters getting out of bed and slipping on shoes. If there was a literary device or some kind of symbolism going on there I missed it. All I could think of is “these people get in and out of bed a lot” and maybe there is some dim parallel to the roaring orgy days of Belasco’s heyday in Hell House there.