I can’t say I love horror, but I love the idea of horror. Every autumn when the air turns crisp, the trees burst with color, and I feel Halloween approaching, I can’t help but be sucked in by the spirit of the season.
I say yes to every haunted house and every gory film, despite almost immediately regretting my decision. I’ll leave the haunted house in tears and refuse to sleep with the lights off and when someone asks me tomorrow if I want to read the terrifying ghost story they just found, of course I’ll say yes.
I’m a glutton for punishment, in that sense.
When I picked up Richard Matheson’s 1971 novel, Hell House I was certain I’d regret it in just the same way. I loved I Am Legend and was happy with my previous foray into the horror genre (King’s The Shining) so I was sure I was in good hands.
Imagine my absolute and overwhelming disappointment then when I discovered that the only thing scary about Hell House was the thought that anyone could love this book.
The novel opens on December 20, 1970. Parapsychologist and physicist Lionel Barrett gets the chance of a lifetime with an opportunity to investigate the world’s most haunted house, Hell House. Eccentric millionaire Rolf Rudolph Deutsch reaches out to Lionel and insists that if he can give him definitive proof of an after-life or lack-thereof, he’ll pay him the tidy sum of $100,000. Lionel can’t resist and arrives on the scene with his wife, Edith, and two other of Deutsch’s recruits: spiritualist Florence Tanner and physical medium (and survivor of a previous Hell House haunting), Benjamin Fischer. The four are to spend one week in the home, but they’re not there more than a couple hours before things start to go horribly wrong.
Already the story faces some predictability of premise. Haunted house? Check. Eccentric millionaire? Check. Ghost with a deviant and violent past? Check. Group of strangers isolated in the countryside? Check and check.
I waited for Matheson’s twist, his variation on a theme, or for the sharp, clear writing of I Am Legend to shine through, but it never came. When Matheson’s writing isn’t coasting by as passable, it’s veering into ham-fistedness.
He’s never quite able to fully realize his characters, and they drift through the novel half-formed, often relying on virulent caricature to complete them. Sexism runs rampant, with Florence and Edith playing little more than overly sensitive, emotional women in need of saving. The men’s failings are hypermasculine, with Lionel suffering from impotency and overabundant pride and Fischer painted as weak, paralyzed by inaction. In these characterizations, the writing is at it’s poorest as we’re treated to pathetic descriptions like,
“Edith closed her eyes and drew her legs up. She couldn’t face that again. The worst
haunted house in the world threatened her less than being alone.”
Oh, brother. Another depiction of a woman terrified of loneliness, clinging to her husband, with no other real personality traits. This is the best you could do, Matheson? Give me a break.
We even see Matheson veer into straightforward racism, with his depiction of Florence’s Native American spirit guide:
“Florence’s chair made a creaking noise. ‘Me Red Cloud,’ she said in a sonorous voice. Her face, in the darkness, was stonelike, her expression imperious. ‘Me Red Cloud,’ she repeated. . . . ‘Red Cloud Tanner woman guide. Guide second medium on this side. Talk with Tanner woman. Bring other spirits to her.’”
To be fair, Matheson does call out Red Cloud’s voice as a “poor impersonation,” but that doesn’t happen until the very end and even so, the decision to even have the spirit guide be Native American is a pathetic stereotype in and of itself. Coupling that with such a lazy and offensive impersonation makes absolutely no sense. None of it affects the story or communicates a point. It just seems to be a convenient way to set Florence apart and as such, it’s pretty deplorable.
As for the scares, they rely heavily on shock over atmosphere or emotion, and the shock relies almost entirely on sexuality and sexual violence. Hell House’s former residents were those who gave in to bacchanalian desires, and the home was the site of everything from rape and violent orgies to murder and torture.
But this isn’t any more interesting or well crafted than schlocky slasher flicks like My Bloody Valentine or I Know What You Did Last Summer. These scares are cheap and seem to largely be rooted in the fear of women’s sexual desires and repulsion of homosexuality. In fact, Matheson writes about women’s desires as if the only thing that could cause them is demonic possession.
In The Shining, Kubrick’s interpretation in particular, the haunted Overlook Hotel contains something truly menacing: a father’s worst fears and worst self brought to the surface. A recovering alcoholic who has hit his child is transformed by malevolent forces into a raging, homicidal monster. Infused in the depiction is King’s personal, first-hand experience with alcoholism, and it shows. His characters feel real. The terror he creates rings more true. King is far from perfect when it comes to depictions of women and people of color, but he’s already leagues ahead of Matheson’s Hell House here.
Ultimately, Hell House falls miserably short. It’s no match to King’s Shining on any level and its disgusting anti-feminist, anti-sex, homophobic principles should strip it of its spot on literature’s list of scariest tales. Forget this one and turn to I Am Legend instead.