This is the first story we’ve had to read that was written during my lifetime. It was nice to be able to judge it by mostly modern standards.
I enjoyed this book very much. It was creepy and sometimes gross and that makes me happy! Creepy for the win! The use of atmosphere in this book was outstanding. Something that I think modern authors (particularly aspiring ones) don’t use enough are the senses besides hearing and sight. Hell House utilized smell often (the tarn jumps to mind) and tactile feeling (the ooze in the steam room) to great advantage. It really made the scenes exceptionally vivid.
The book is written in something of an omniscient point of view, which really lends itself to head-hopping. This is one of my pet peeves and often I’ll put a book down because of it because it’s too distracting. Hell House had a large amount of head-hopping, but I tried very hard to ignore it, in the same way I ignored structural issues I have with Phantom of the Opera and characterization issues I have with Lovecraft’s work. I really wanted to enjoy the story itself. I found the head-hopping bothersome, however.
I did find that the story, overall, had a somewhat misogynistic flavor. All of the women in the story – Edith, Florence, and the female doctor from the 1940 experiment – are all emotionally or mentally taken in by Belasco and ultimately cause the undoing of the teams. The men, even if they don’t survive or are otherwise attacked, are overpowered physically or psychologically (as in driven insane, not duped or being overtaken by Belasco’s will). Barrett believes throughout the entire book that he is correct, with the only moment of question being when he’s attacked in the steam room. Even when he’s killed, he never mentally acquiesces to the will of Belasco. That is reserved for the women. This implies that a woman is emotionally and/or mentally a more vulnerable person than a man. It’s the Eve Syndrome.
It’s especially surprising, I think, given the time frame of this book. It was written, most likely, in the late sixties, published in 1971. So this was at the height of the battle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, the time where women really started taking charge of their lives, and when the abortion debate was getting into full swing (Roe v. Wade was decided by SCOTUS in 1973, but the case began in 1969/1970). Seeing the Eve Syndrome in Hell House was off-putting and somewhat disappointing.
Although I found both the head-hopping and the Eve Syndrome difficult to swallow, I still enjoyed Hell House. A few years ago I watched Rose Red (conceived by Stephen King) and I would say that he may have taken some inspiration for that mini series from Hell House, though I don’t know whether he actually did. There are a number of similarities between the two, particularly the “ghost hunter” aspect.
Overall, even with its drawbacks, I enjoyed reading Hell House and the writing was good enough to drag me through without too much problem. This one does not go on the Milk Crate of Sharing (where I put books for my friends to steal); instead, it will remain on my shelf.