Hell House

Published September 13, 2011 by Jennifer Loring

The legendary Richard Matheson. We meet at last.

Color me unimpressed.

I wanted to like this book because I was born in Maine, visited every summer for 10 years, and my father’s side of the family owns a house there that is, by all accounts, haunted. Maine is still one of the most heavily-forested and least populated areas of the country. There are countless back roads through the woods, past 300-year-old cemeteries and houses where the nearest neighbor might be miles away. I wanted Matheson to, at the very least, capture the atmosphere of such a place, and of the kind of house you might find there.

He did not.

Hell House has all the depth, complexity and style of my grocery list. Everything we are taught not to do as writers can be found right here. Head-hopping, sensory barriers, passive verbs, plenty of telling but very little showing, etc. Not to mention that in his undying love of adverbs, Matheson manages to create ones that don’t even exist, like “cracklingly.” Unable to describe anything with concrete words, he throws adverb after adverb into nearly every sentence. His ability to be incredibly vague is unparalleled. We’re given gems of description like “She tightened.” What does that even mean? Or this (I used bold for emphasis): “‘I had a brother. David. He died when he was seventeen–spinal meningitis.’ She looked into the past. ‘It was the only real sorrow of my life'” (147). I’m sorry, but that is just lazy and flat-out awful writing.

I did not expect the subtle horror of Shirley Jackson from this book, though Matheson borrows liberally from her plot and throws in some sex and violence because, hey, it was the 70s. I did expect one that, coming from a so-called “master” of the genre, was at least well-written. Hell, his son wrote one of my favorite short stories ever, “Red.” Even putting aside the problems noted above, the book quickly sinks into pure hokeyness. Cue the spirit guide with the laughably broken English (although I give Matheson credit for having Fischer note how stupid the “Indian” voice sounds). And Edith who, with her short hair and “strong, almost masculine features” (20), naturally was destined for a lesbian encounter. Or Edith’s attack by a floating hand, which wasn’t scary so much as just silly.

The only part of the book I found even remotely interesting was Florence’s final possession before her death in the chapel, but even that fell far short of its potential due to the weakness of the writing. What should have been a horrifying and emotional scene left me shrugging my shoulders and trying to get through the rest of the novel as quickly as possible. Fischer’s infodump toward the end of the book regarding the house’s “secret” deflated any remaining tension. Matheson should have been building tension at this point, since Edith and Fischer have to go back inside. In a sense, though, it’s appropriate, since all Fischer has to do to exorcise Belasco’s ghost, after Florence and Barrett have both died trying, is insult him. Um, sure. A letdown from start to finish, Hell House had great promise but failed to deliver on all accounts.

Works Cited:

Matheson, Richard. Hell House. New York: Tor, 1971, 1999.

9 comments on “Hell House

  • Damn, girl! There was a lot about the book that I didn't care for, mostly the sexphobia stuff, but you beat this down like it owed you money. I completely forgot about the Indian spirit guide. When I read it, I thought to myself "Come on, now. Matheson is pulling my leg. Either he's trying to make her look stupid or he's trying to make her into an ignorant scam artist." It was a ridiculous and completely comical scene and, for the life of me, I thought it was deliberate. You bring up soemthing that I keep chewing over lately, which is the "rules" we're taught as writers. I've read rule book after rule book and I hate verbs and the passive voice the way that Batman hates crime. But when I look at published, classic horror novels, they often break every rule I've learned. I'm starting to think that being too aware of these rules imposes a rigidity both as a writer and a reader of fiction. I liked the poetry of tightening and looking into the past, but both of them would get a big red X if they were in a student submission. Maybe, as MFA candidates, there's a real danger that we're going to come out of this unable to see the forest for the trees. And Scott, you don't have to apologize if we don't like a work. You're an English professor. It's your JOB to torment us with fiction. Besides, I liked Hell House okay. Try going to a post-modern fiction course. I read A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius and wanted to put my face through a wall.

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  • Ha! You should read a couple of my posts from last term! I agree to some extent about the "rules," but some things are unforgivable–in my eyes, anyway, and maybe that's a result of the "training" I've been getting in this program. The relentless adverbs, for one; my mentor would kick my ass. Ditto on the passive verbs. On the other hand, I've read manuscripts from people about to graduate that do these things and worse. So, as far as the program, I'm not entirely sure there's consistency in what we're learning on an individual level.I took a post-modern fiction course during undergrad, and while I didn't read that particular book, I had the face-through-wall moment more than once!

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  • I read Matheson for the first time last fall in Scott's other horror genre class. I liked his work then (I Am Legend, The Funeral) so Hell House kind of took me by surprise. I didn't care for it. And I couldn't always tell if Matheson wanted us to take parts of it seriously or as a joke. The adverbs didn't bother me so much for some reason, but a lot of other things did.

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  • The head hopping and passive voice got to me, but I didn't mind the adverbs; and Joe, agreed about the rules–to a point. I think it's good to know the rules, but then it's also good to break them if you have a reason. There are cases when an adverb is needed. There are times when having something in passive voice increases the tension. Rules are meant to be broken, but you should at least know them so that you know what you're doing and why you're doing it. As for Hell House, I think it suffered being immediately after Hill House. They are parallel novels, and it seems that I'm not alone in declaring Hill House my favorite of the two.

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  • Great post as always, Jenn. You grease the rails with humor and fine writing but tender no mercy in your excellent analysis — made all the more excellent because I totally agree. The book annoyed me more than anything. It's funny. People at SHU often complain about head-hopping, and it rarely bothers me, so their complaints frequently feel like echoed dogma, but the head-hopping in HELL HOUSE was a big problem, exacerbating the lack of development of the characters, who also suffered from not-so-believable motivations and a distancing lack of control over their own bodies and minds.

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  • Great post, but I think you're a little too rough on Matheson. Remember, this is an old story (published sometime in the '70s). In general, the technical aspects of authors' writing have improved a lot. You could also point out lots of technical errors in THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, which was written before HELL HOUSE. Love your ideas about the story, though.

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  • I have to disagree with you a bit. Not only has Matheson himself written older work that's better than this, but so have other authors–Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, etc. (and in a response to Cin's post on "Hill House," I did point out a couple of things that bothered me about that book). I don't think the age of the story has much to do with it.

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