Customer Reviews: Hell House
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on November 4, 2000
I am now officially a fan of Richard Matheson.
I started out by reading "I am Legend", which is one of the best horror stories ever written, so I was expecting a little less from this. And, it isn't as good as "I am Legend", but then again, not much is. I am on a crusade now to get all of my horror-loving friends and family to read Matheson - it seems his work has been virtually buried by the enormous amount of really bad horror that seemed to spring up in Stephen King's wake (which isn't King's fault...publishers just started seeing dollar signs...). Matheson is a rarity in the field of horror - he's classic.
"Hell House" is a fast read. Each chapter consists of one day, and the chapters are broken down into little sections (7:08pm, 1:39 am, etc.) that keep the pace quick, and make it very easy for you to say, "Oh, I guess I can squeeze in just a little more before turning out the light." (Or at least going to sleep!) The writing is snappy, and to the point. Matheson creates vivid, cinematic images without having the writing call too much attention to itself. Surely this is a skill he perfected while writing for "The Twilight Zone".
"Hell House" has enough twists and turns to satisfy, and enough really scary, disgusting stuff to possibly haunt your dreams. I found myself having to think happy thoughts as I closed my eyes at night. I haven't had to do that in a while...not since reading "It" by Stephen King as a kid.
Fellow horror fans, you really ought to do yourselves a favor and read this book (and all of his others, too!). And remember, if anything seems familiar -- like it's been done before -- then it was probably lifted from this!
Highly recommended!
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on September 13, 2003
"Hell House" author Richard Matheson has always been one of the great supernatural authors of recent history. His novels may not hit the bestseller lists with the frequency of Stephen King or Dean Koontz, but his contributions to the genre are legendary. His resume includes episodes of "The Twilight Zone," "I Am Legend," "Somewhere In Time," "The Shrinking Man" and "Stir of Echoes." For me, "Hell House" stands out as his great contribution to the genre, a storied and historical form of literature traveled by the likes of Shirley Jackson, Bram Stoker, H. G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Just when you think all has been covered in the haunted house genre, here comes Matheson with this electric and extraordinarily creepy variation circa 1971.
Wonderfully realized and darkly imaginative, "Hell House" is a simple tale of four unluckly folks hired to crack the legend of Hell House, an isolated mansion in Maine with a history as dark as the Manson Family at Spahn Ranch. Once owned by a Mr. Belasco, the house was an early 20th century hangout of deviant folks who explored carnal avenues to the ultimate point of starvation and death. Two previous expeditions of scientists ended in suicide and disaster, and our modern-day protagonists, needless-to-say, have their work cut out for them.
By novel's end, each character must come to terms with their own human weaknesses and repressions, exposed by the overwhelming evil of Hell House. Matheson's novel is brilliant because it brings a sexual awareness to the genre only flirted with in the past. The house, in many ways, is a prison with windows bricked over, nestled uncomfortably in an isolated, fog-covered valley. Matheson's characters are painfully alone, battling forces psycologically and eventually physically.
What is most memorable about "Hell House," is the set-up and creation of one of the most evil houses in literature history. Matheson's dark imagaination has created a character that is both repulsive and erotic, possessing an energy that slowly works on human frailty, devouring and dominating. Past haunted house novels have enthralled with gothic and mysterious allure. Matheson's novel throws goth out the window, replacing such conventions with an oozing, carnal evil, grotesque in nature, overwhelming and horrifying.
"Hell House" is so good, one wonders how it could possibly be topped. I don't think it ever really will, but recent authors such as King and Anne Rice continue to create epic variations on the haunted house story. But the brilliance of Matheson's novel is its primal simplicity. Horror has rarely seen a tale as creepy as "Hell House."
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on May 24, 2003
I've been indulging in horror novels for the past year and I've read everything from Anne Rice to Stephen King. This novel was the most frightening novel I've laid my eyes on. While reading it, someone knocked on my door and I screamed so loud that I practically gave my visitor a heart attack.
So would you like this book? Picture this. There is a house where only one person has survived living beneath its roof in over 30 years. Four people return (a physicist, his wife, and 2 mediums); with a reward of 100,000 to see if they can get rid of the "hauntings" at Hell House. The physicists, Lionel, insists that there are no such things as ghost; that paranormal occurrences are a natural part of the world created by electromagnetic forces rather than the dead. The spiritualist, Florence, argues that the phenomenon's are a result of trapped and torments spirits which she has the power to relinquish from their prison. The mystery emerges as the debate of the force behind the phantoms grows. Will any of these four survive to solve the mystery of Hell House and if they do did they really learn the truth or just what the house wanted them to learn?
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on November 17, 1999
I'll agree with Stephen King, at the risk of seeming unorginal, that this is the scariest of all haunted house novels--much more so than "The Haunting of Hill House," "Burnt Offerings," or "The Shining," in my opinion, although it is not as good of a book overall as "Hill House." Matheson doesn't primarily rely on gross-outs for his effects (although some things in the book are rather revolting); mostly he just makes you afraid of what might happen next, by making the characters seem real and down-to-earth, with real fears and problems, and by establishing an extremely fearsome ambience through clear prose and ever more sinister suggestions. The use of semi-science fiction technology to investigate the possibility of an afterlife (explored by Matheson very differently in "what Dreams May Come" and "Bid Time Return") is kind of an interesting and involving element as well, and helps pull you in. Including some provocative sexual stuff kind of gets your attention also, but makes you feel guilty at the same time when things go really wrong--Matheson uses this device effectively, partly for titillation but also to heighten the overall effect. You really feel like you've been through the wringer after you get through this book, but it's somehow an enjoyable, refreshing experience. (Horror fiction aficionados I think will know what I mean, others will think that makes no sense). Be scared, very scared--read it.
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on October 8, 1999
I had just finished reading another Matheson classic, I Am Legend, when I found out, to my delight, Hell House was being reprinted. Having missed the book the first time around, I wasted no time in ordering it from Wow! It sure was worth it. The atmosphere in this book was unparelled; the tension unbearable. I read this in 5 hours and when I completed the book, I couldn't tell if I was more sad for it's passing, or afraid from it's content. Hell House is the standard all haunted house books have been and will be compared against.
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on August 27, 2014
This book was first published in 1971. There are a few things that are bit dated but nothing much that would make you think that this couldn't have taken place at any time afterwards (except for lacking a truck full of electronic gadgetry). It's a classic haunted house story. A rich old man named Deutsch with too much money and too little time left hires Dr. Lionel Barrett, an expert in the field of parapsychology, to find out whether the rumors are true. That the Belasco House in Maine, otherwise known as Hell House, is truly haunted. He has offered three people $100,000 each to stay in this house for a week and get him answers as to whether or not there is life after death. It is here that good haunted house stories and bad haunted house stories part ways. This is a bad story.

Florence Tanner is a psychic. Benjamin Fischer is also psychic and was a member of an ill fated group that went into Hell House thirty years previously. He was the only member of the group to escape alive and sane. They join Lionel Barrett and his wife Edith and enter Hell House.

As the assigned leader, Lionel Barrett is determined to be scientific. He makes no effort to hide his belief that psychics are at best deluded flakes. He is arrogant, pompous, condescending and overbearing. The only opinions that carry any weight are his own. Even with concrete evidence that there is something weird going on, he accuses Florence of somehow creating all this in her head.

Edith is a serious weak link throughout most of the book. Treated with condescension, especially by her husband, she is described several times as being a child or little girl- always wishing she could understand all this complicated stuff. She is so ignorant that she drinks brandy that has been in a cupboard for who knows how many decades.

Benjamin is a non entity for most of the story. He is a brooding man, in it for the money, telling everyone over and over that they are going to die if they stay.

The writing in many places is... not good. For instance;

"He breathed in deeply, inspiring further cognizance into his mind."

"A rage of bewilderment clamped his muscles suddenly."

"Then a radiant smile pulled back her lips..."

and "it seemed as though a burst of cognizance exploded through her."

There were many paragraphs, mostly of descriptions of the house, that were copied word for word in different places of the book.

As other reviewers have pointed out, the author loved the word hissing and used it many many times throughout the story. Cold, hot, pain, surprise, anger, fear and more are hissed.

Then there is sex. There is a cringe inducing strip search of Florence by Edith. Some "damned lesbian" comments and scenes. Several times Edith tries to tempt someone, anyone, into having sex but it's a no go. In this book it's always the men who fend off wanton women. Perhaps the sex scenes were designed to titillate or lead to higher sales. Whatever the reason, they were badly done and unbelievable.

I have read some of the author's earlier work and enjoyed it, but this is isn't even close to the quality of those stories.
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VINE VOICEon September 4, 2005
Richard Matheson is the horror writer that everyone seems to know without ever knowing his name. The Incredible Shrinking Man, Stir of Echoes and What Dreams May Come are all his, along with I Am Legend (made into the movies The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man) and such wonderful short stories as Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (a classic Twilight Zone episode) and Duel (adapted into an early Spielberg made-for-TV movie). I could go on, but I think my point is clear: his name may not be as big as King or Koontz, but Richard Matheson is one of the biggest horror writers out there.

Hell House (also adapted into a movie, The Legend of Hell House) is yet another reason why Matheson is the tops in his field. A dying rich man wants to know if there is life after death. He recruits three people to provide the answer: Lionel Barrett, a parapsychologist who believes in "supernormal" phenomena but dismisses ghosts as mere delusion. Florence Tanner, an ex-actress and spiritualist medium. Ben Fischer, the only survivor from the last foray into Hell House thirty years earlier.

These three, along with Barrett's wife Edith, are indeed going to Hell House, the nickname for the Belasco house that is considered the Mount Everest of haunted houses. These researchers must go into Hell House for a week to see if they can find proof of ghosts. Besides the normal packed clothes and the like, all four carry other baggage; for example Barrett is partially crippled and impotent and his wife is sexually repressed. The house will soon enough start preying on all these weaknesses.

But what haunts Hell House? Is it the ghost of the viciously evil Belasco, as Florence believes? Or is it merely the psychic residue of the many atrocities that took place within its walls, as Barrett believes? Can the answer be determined before they become the house's latest victims?

Matheson is as good as ever in telling this tale. As with many of his stories, he is adept at making the reader doubt whether some of the events that occur are truly happening or merely imagined by the characters. Admittedly, with the shifting viewpoints of the four, it seems likely that something "supernormal" is going on.

Among haunted house stories, this is one of the best in the bunch. I suggest it is read along with Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, which bears some similarities to Hell House and was probably an influence on Matheson. However, even if you never read Jackson's book, don't skip this one; it is a classic story from a classic writer.
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on September 25, 2000
Hell House is definitely the best haunted house novel I've ever read (followed closely by The Shining which was inspired by Hell House). The text is easy to read, but also rich with detail. I've seen some of the reviews saying the ending was predictable and the occurances are cliche, but you have to remember that when Matheson wrote this, it was pretty original. Matheson was a pioneer of 20th century horror writing, and this is one of his masterpieces.
Yes, the book is disturbingly haunting, not cheap "BOO" thrills. You will look over your shoulder for a while after reading it. Also, check out the film, The Legend of Hell House. The parts that are in it are just like the book right down to the dialogue in most parts. But since it was filmed in the late 70's, they couldn't film certain parts due to content or budget. Still a great film.
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on February 15, 2011
Recently I re-visted reading Richard Matheson's novel "Hell House." For those of you who remember the 1971 film starring, Roddy McDowell, Pamela Franklin, Clive Reville and Gayle Hunnicutt, which is titled, "The Legend of Hell house". I was a young boy when I saw the film, and as far as scares go, nothing to hide under the sheet at night about. But many years later, while browsing a used book store, I found this little 300 page gem. For the next couple of days, I had two hour lunches and now I had something to read. Richard Matheson's book far surpasses anything the film attempted to do. It creeps into your imagination and plants itself firmly. The characters are richly layered and the house itself becomes a character. I always find it a welcome surprise, when I find a book that really starts to make me feel like something is very wrong. Like a master painting, the author creates an image that keep the reader unnerved the entire time. The brief chapters and countdown of time makes one feel time is indeed running out.

Twenty years later, I still love this novel. It reveals why Richard Matheson was so prolific at writing so many episodes of "The Twilight Zone" and scripts written for movies made for t.v. Such as "The Night Stalker". I would say will all confidence, Hell House holds up today as much as it did when first published.

Leave the lights on.

Thomas Amo
author of "An Apple For Zoe"
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on April 6, 2000
Unfortunately, I had difficulty writing this review; you see, I had seen the film, "The Legend of Hell House" several times before ever reading the book, so I worried that this review would not be as objective. Nevertheless, "Hell House" surpasses the movie in many respects, the most obvious being characterization. We find out much more about our heroes' motivations, and Matheson's skill at turning the ordinary into the malevolent and frightening is in top form. To anyone who has NOT seen the film, please read this book first! I promise you'll come away more frightened if you do. "Hell House" is a seminal work on the genre, and its influence is felt still today.
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