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From his deathbed, sensationalistic newspaper tycoon Rolf Rudolph Deutsch wants proof of the supernatural, ghosts, and most importantly, what lies beyond death's door. To do this before he croaks, the eccentric millionaire hires three paranormal experts to investigate "the Mount Everest of haunted houses" to get him some answers. This house in question is a dark and foreboding place of dubious and murderous reputation. Secluded in backwater Maine, the manor is surrounded by the Bastard Bog and an eternal, nearly impenetrable fog. Emeric Belasco -- it's owner and architect, was the bastard son of a Civil War munitions maker; a giant, raging madman known to partake in "drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilations, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism" and other unspeakable things in the house that now bears his name. 

In the early 1900's, after his wife committed suicide, Belasco sealed the house off from the outside world, trapping himself and his cronies and disciples inside. The depravity that happened next can only be left to the imagination. Eventually, the house was broken into by relatives looking for lost family members, but everyone had come to a gruesome end. No one knows for sure exactly how many people actually died in Belasco House, but one death cannot be confirmed because no one could ever find the body of Emeric Belasco. With no heir, the house was up for grabs, but no one could claim or occupy Belasco House for very long, due to all the mysterious and deadly phenomenon that occurred there as the spirits of the deceased still roamed the maledicted halls. As its reputation and body count grew, by the '40s a group of professional paranormal investigators -- including a famed psychic whiz-kid named Ben Fischer, mounted an expedition to study the house. Several days later they found Fischer on the front porch, comatose, naked, and in a fetal position. Everyone else had met a violent end inside the house, and after that disaster, the Belasco House had a new name: Hell House.

Now, in 1971, a new team has been organized by Deutsch to tame Hell House: Dr. Lionel Barret, a physicist and parapsychologist, who will be accompanied (-- or maybe that's encumbered) by his emotionally dependent wife, Edith; Florence Tanner, a spiritual medium; and Fischer, the sole survivor of the first expedition. They've been given one week to poke and prod, and each will be paid $100,000 to validate or debunk the secrets of Hell House. And believe it or not, that's just the back story and first few chapters. Quite the titillating set up to a truly fascinating book -- and this thing has barely gotten warmed up yet as our meager group faces danger both internal and external. Conflicts arise as bitter "professional differences" won't allow them to agree on the nature of Hell House, dividing them into two camps as the possessed house starts to get its hooks into them both physically and mentally. 

Barret is a skeptic on the spiritual aspects of the phenomenon. He believes in the paranormal but only as a science. Good and evil, souls, or the afterlife don't enter into the equation. Barret theorizes the house has a great deal of psychic energy stored up and "in essence, the house is a giant battery and the residual energy of which must be tapped by all who enter it." In other words, if you believe the house is haunted then the "residual energy" will manifest itself that way. The good doctor also has a plan on how to rid the house of this excess energy.

Tanner is the polar opposite. The spiritual leader of a fervent religious sect, she feels the house is a controlled multiple haunting. Supposedly, there is more than one ghost haunting Hell House, but Belasco keeps the other spirits trapped here; not allowing them to pass on to heaven -- or in most cases, hell. Ms. Tanner is also mental medium (-- telepathic and empathetic), and intends to help those pour souls move on to the other side and give the house a spiritual cleansing. 

Fischer, on the other hand, is both a mental and physical medium (-- telepathy and telekinesis), but only intends to put up a strong psychic barrier, wait out the week, and collect his money. Having nearly been killed here once before, he has no intention of tangling with Hell House again.

Things hit the ground running as the initial sťance brings a warning by Belasco himself. Channeling through Tanner, he warns them to "Get out of this house before I kill you all." And then our story barrels to the climax and bloody resolution. Whose theory proves to be right? I won't spoil it, but I will say that not everyone survives.

What I really like about Hell House -- and all of Matheson's work for that matter, is how he can explain things like psychic phenomenon and Barrett's complex theories so the layman can understand them. I barely survived high school physics but Barrett's intricate explanations on ectoplasm, bio-energy and electro-magnetic radiation made perfect sense to me. While reading, I kept hearing Dan Aykroyd's Dr. Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters voicing Dr. Barrett in my mind's ear.

Matheson is also able to bring the reader a sense of dread and foreboding with an economical efficiency of words that a lot of writers could learn from. One thing Matheson isn't, is verbose. A lot is left to the imagination. He handles the action scenes in the exact same way, keeping things nice and taught as the reader burns through the pages to see what happens next ... Florence's initial sitting and summoning of the spirits, and later, during the poltergeist attack in the dining room, where everything turns into a projectile, is a prime example of this.

And if you'll allow me a brief interlude, here, Matheson's efficiency is actually displayed better in his book, I Am Legend. With a few simple words and descriptions he can make several months pass as Morgan teaches himself the knowledge he needs to fight off the vampire contagion. In Hell House, his characters are likeable, annoying, heroic, sanctimonious, stubborn and a lot more braver than they should be in some situations. And also rightly frightened in others. In other words, very human considering the circumstances. The most interesting character in the whole story, however, is Belasco House itself. From the moldy steam and pool room, to the dank cellars, to the profane chapel, the house is Belasco through all it's manifestations and dirty deeds. 

The book is not without it's flaws, though. To me, Matheson seems to enjoy tormenting and degrading poor Florence Tanner a little bit too much. He really stacks the deck against her and runs her through the wringer: Barrett accuses her of manipulating the house's energy against him; she is savagely attacked by spirits, and always seems to be naked when this happens; she also becomes obsessed with the spirit of Belasco's son, Eric. And I was a little uneasy with the scene where she tries to exorcise Eric's spirit by having sex with it. Then again, he doesn't really treat Edith all that better, either.

Again, I won't spoil the ending, but it kind of chickens out on whose theory is right. I wasn't completely satisfied with it but that could be due to a let down after such a great build up. I have the same reactions to a lot of good books I read. There really isn't anything wrong with the ending, I just don't want them to end. Period. Hence the disappointment.

This review is part of a Richard Matheson Roundtable:

3B Theater teams up with Zack over at The Duck Speaks for a look at two of author's novels and their subsequent film adaptations.

The Duck Speaks

Novel: The Shrinking Man :: Film: The Incredible Shrinking Man

3B Theater

Novel: Hell House :: Film: The Legend of Hell House

Originally Posted: 12/17/04 :: Rehashed: 10/22/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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