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