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Hell House Paperback – October 13, 1999
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From the Publisher
"Hell House is the scariest haunted house novel ever written. It looms over the rest the way the mountains loom over the foothills." --Stephen King
About the Author
Richard Matheson was The New York Times bestselling author of I Am Legend, Hell House, Somewhere in Time, The Incredible Shrinking Man, A Stir of Echoes, The Beardless Warriors, The Path, Seven Steps to Midnight, Now You See It…, and What Dreams May Come, among others. He was named a Grand Master of Horror by the World Horror Convention, and received the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement. He has also won the Edgar, the Spur, and the Writer's Guild awards. In 2010, he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. In addition to his novels Matheson wrote several screenplays for movies and TV, including "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," based on his short story, along with several other Twilight Zone episodes. He was born in New Jersey and raised in Brooklyn, and fought in the infantry in World War II. He earned his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. Matheson died in June, 2013, at the age of eighty-seven.
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Top Customer Reviews
I had high hopes for Hell House, which had glowing endorsements from such auspicious writers as Stephen King. Alas, save for a couple of gripping moments, the book was so-so at best. Matheson’s writing here is pedestrian, repetitive, and wrought with awkward adverbs. The narrative plods at a leaden pace. The fright elements are familiar by today’s standards (I realize the book was published in the 1970s, but so was ‘Salem Lot and The Shining—both of which continue to stand the test of time). Although the ending was unpredictable and rather fitting, it still felt anticlimactic and maybe even a little contrived. The characters are banal, their motives one-dimensional, and the reader is given little as to their lives outside of Hell House. Dr. Barrett is overly arrogant and his attempts at explaining the nature of ghostly phenomena through the lens of cold, scientific logic bridges on nonsensical techno-babble; Edith is meek and repressed; and Florence is stubborn and overeager to prove she’s correct about the source of the haunting, even at the expense of her own life. Of the quartet, Benjamin Franklin Fischer was perhaps the only likeable character. In addition to the characters' lack of depth, I found myself occasionally frustrated by both their strange behaviors and their rash decisions, some of which proved fatal.
As I was reading Hell House, I had a hard time not drawing comparisons between this tale and Shirley Jackson’s seminal novel, The Haunting of Hill House (1959). While the plots of both stories surround four ghost seekers probing a notoriously unfriendly pile with only a single vowel to distinguish the two—Hill House v. Hell House—the more notable similarities are found in the principal protagonists. There’s little doubt that Matheson took some of the key traits and identities of Jackson’s players and injected them into his own. On the other hand, Matheson’s horrors are openly exposed while Jackson’s are implied and more frightening for that very reason. Moreover, Matheson's prose doesn’t even come close to reaching the poetry of Jackson's elegantly woven web of words. (Simply read the first paragraph of Hill House and you’ll see what I mean.)
The story is so steeped in darkly twisted, depraved eroticism that some might argue there’s more sexual content going on here than horror. It’s true, there’s plenty of flesh on display and sexuality certainly plays a chief role in the backstories of both the characters and the Belasco House. I won’t mince words—there were times when I sensed the book was lewdly indulging in sex, much like a titillated teenager (unlike William Peter Blatley’s The Exorcist, which handles similar adult themes but with greater sophistication). But if you ask me, lurid sex actually sets the book apart from other forays into the haunted house genre. While I had no objection to Matheson’s depiction of spirit possession coupled with sexual kinks (hash-tag ghost sex), which have their place in books like these; however, readers may find the sexualization and brutal abuse of the female characters gratuitous at times.
Despite being given high marks, I’m afraid Hell House doesn’t live up to its advance billing. Sure, there’s some memorable stuff found in the pages of this cinematic novel (which was later adapted into a 1973 film for which Matheson wrote the screenplay), and it’s a both beguiling feat for its time as well as a respectable contribution to the development of the modern horror genre. But is Belasco House the “Mount Everest of haunted houses”? Meh, let’s just go with K2 and call it a day, shall we? Unfortunately, the book suffers from poor characterization and stilted writing, but I’d still recommend this novel to all you Matheson appreciators or lovers of the haunted house plot…though I can’t promise you’ll like it.
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.
After the first couple of chapters, I knew better than to read it at night but even on warm, sunny afternoons I was covered in goosebumps reading this. The setting, the characters, everything was described in enough detail to put my imagination into overdrive. If you like stories about haunted houses and ghosts then I really recommend this one.