Just Read: Hell House by Richard Matheson

Horror, MFA, SHU


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.

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  • Reply
    Sheldon S. Higdon
    February 18, 2010 at 8:47 am

    You made some very good points. One being the Eve Syndrome. I never thought of that while reading the book. Good eye. And the aforementioned Roe v. Wade hearing. Another good point. Good brain(thinking). Again, I never thought of that either.

    For me, if I really want to truly disect a book I have to read it twice. The first time for pleasure, the second for critting. And since I don’t have time to read the book twice my brain is on overdrive trying to keep ideas or thoughts in order, although I do highlight as I read. But I have a terrible mind. Very forgetful.

    I liked the book as well. I like Matheson over all. The head hopping didn’t/doesn’t bother me. I like to see inside all of the character’s heads. What they’re thinking or feeling. Now if it’s a novel with 30 characters then it would drive me bonkers but since this story only had four main characters to hop around in I was fine.

    You mentioned how King created ‘Rose Red’. True, but he didn’t write the book, which I’m sure you know. And I do know that King actually based the idea of ‘Rose Red’ off of the Winchester House in California.

    Great blog!

  • Reply
    February 18, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    Rose Red for me, was kind of a blend of Hell House and the Winchester House. From Hell House there’s the aspect of forbidden love (visible both in John’s infidelity and the affair of Sukeena and Ellen.) Also the psychic investigators, but that’s been done a hundred different times since Matheson wrote his book.
    Rose Red steals the idea of building as a way to immortality, though the Winchester Mansion was meant to confuse the angry spirits of those killed by the rifles.
    I didn’t think about the ‘Eve’ syndrome either, although I’m not quite sure I agree with you about the extent of it. I think it has more to do with the make-up of the characters than their femininity.
    Florence willfully opened herself to the house, creating the connection that proved her undoing. I’m not sure it had so much to do with her being a woman as a person who believed that "love" would undo the Belasco house, and the House proving her wrong in a most violent fashion.
    I think it’s more an attack on the dependence on science and faith than on women. The only survivors are ones who don’t actively try to interact with the house.
    Fischer also gets taken over by the house and it’s only because Edith is there that he doesn’t drown. The house does dupe Fischer. When he finally opens himself to it, he feels nothing at first, and then something comes for him, and only shutting down hard saves him.
    I can’t wait to see what you have to say about The thing on the Doorstep and Asenath Waite.

  • Reply
    February 19, 2010 at 7:38 am

    I think you brought up some interesting ideas, I didn’t even think about. I spent too much time hating the parapsychologists, which I still dislike. I agree Hell House not on my, oh you need to read this like I did with I am Legend.

  • Reply
    Carla E. Anderton
    February 19, 2010 at 9:43 am

    At the risk of sounding like a femi-Nazi, I have to point out that although, yes, this book was written during a time of great change for women, it was written by a man. So, IF it has a misogynistic flavor, that may be why. I personally didn’t think it did, though.

  • Reply
    February 19, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Vanessa, yes women’s rights were in an up swing during this time in our history, but there was a huge divide on the whole issue. Many people had strong feelings on either side of the issue, but not wanting to get into an extended debate about this I will move on to Sex. Another thing that this period in our nation’s history is know for is sex. Everyone was openly having it, promiscuity was one of the mantras of the day. That being said, the social mores of the day were things that I thought about as I read all of the sexual content in this novel, and there was plenty of it. I think this is a very timely piece that represents many things, besides just sex, that were happening in our culture at the time.

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