This feels like blasphemy.
First, because I love Richard Matheson’s other work. Bid Time Return (and his screen adaptation, Somewhere In Time) will always hold a cherished place in my heart while What Dreams May Come is beloved in my household. Matheson’s Twilight Zone episodes are among my favorites, especially Night Call. After watching Will Smith’s version of I Am Legend, my cinephile husband insisted the concept wasn’t original and 1971’s The Omega Man was far superior. It was great fun to discover Matheson wrote both (and, yes, his novel I Am Legend was the original). Oh, how I wish Stir Of Echoes had been the Matheson ghost novel on the required reading list this semester. But I suppose Hell House is better known and provides the best opportunity to compare and contrast with Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
Second, because explaining why I hate this book with a deep, visceral passion will require writing about some vile things that I don’t like to think about.
Third, because I don’t believe in posting bad reviews online. It’s partly a superstitious karma thing. What you send out into the world comes back to you threefold. Plus, life is precious and there are so many wonderful stories waiting to be discovered, so I normally do not finish books I don’t like. And it’s not ethical to write a bad review of a story (book or movie) where I didn’t make it all the way through to the end. I have a whole graveyard of novels in my house that either bored or disgusted me to the point where I refused to read further. This one fell in the latter category, but it was required reading. So, after standing up and throwing the book across the room, not once but twice, I was forced to pick it back up and keep reading to the bitter end.
In the first eighty pages, the story launches with tantalizing promise.
As with Jackson’s Hill House, we start with a notorious haunted house in an isolated location. This time we’re in Maine, my absolute favorite of the fifty United States, and the Belasco house is described as the Mount Everest of haunted houses. Four people come together to unlock the secrets of its paranormal phenomena with the promise of a huge financial reward offered by a dying millionaire. Dr. Barrett is hell-bent on proving his pet theory that occurrences labeled as hauntings are nothing more than energy that needs to be dispelled. His wife Edith tags along because she can’t stand to be home alone. (That was the first eye-roll moment in a marathon of eye-rolling.) Florence Tanner, a voluptuous actress turned spiritualist minister, is there to heal the world one haunted house at a time. Ben Fischer is the sole survivor of an earlier attempt to study the horrors of Hell House. He’s there to tackle his demons and reclaim his repressed psychic abilities.
They arrive in a soupy fog to discover the electricity and phone service they were promised isn’t working. Worse, the windows are all bricked up. During the team’s initial explorations, they discover a gramophone with a creepy recording of the deceased owner welcoming visitors to his house. Then Ben describes the twisted, perverse history of Belasco, his “Sinposium” of depravity, and the origins of Hell House over dinner that first evening.
So far, so good. It’s a solid foundation for a terrifying haunted house story with an element of unsolved mystery. I was hooked. I was excited to read more. But Matheson takes this tantalizing beginning and pollutes everything with amateurish depictions of supernatural events, repeated non-consensual sexual sadism, homophobia, misogyny, and a ham-fisted final showdown where decades of horror are resolved by confronting an evil spirit responsible for multiple deaths and calling him “a funny little dried up bastard.”
I don’t use the term misogyny lightly. James Bond is frequently labeled as a misogynist, but I can watch Diamonds Are Forever or Live and Let Die without getting my feminist panties in a bunch. However, I felt violated while reading some of the scenes in this book.
Everything started going downhill on page eighty-five when Edith is tasked with examining every inch of Florence’s luscious body before the spiritualist makes her first attempt to contact the spirits of Hell House. The scene is gag-worthy, reading like a horny teenaged boy’s fantasy of hot lesbian lust, and ends with Edith jerking her head to look away from the temptation of the other woman’s naked flesh so violently she hurts her neck. I might have been able to look past that scene, but then thirty-five pages later Florence’s screams wake the household and we discover deep teeth marks ringing both her nipples. (Can anyone point to a horror novel or movie lauded as a classic where a man’s genitalia are bitten? I’m guessing no, but feel free to correct me in the comments.) Later, Florence is shredded by a possessed pussy (cat) and ultimately raped by a pseudo-religious icon with a huge phallus. That’s not scary; it’s just gross.
That said, there were a few things in this novel I could appreciate. Ben is by far my favorite character. Probably because he is the only character not plagued by over-sexualized stereotypes and free from a misguided sense of superiority. I would love to read a book about Ben when he was a teenaged wunderkind in 1930’s psychic circles. I also enjoyed the debates between Dr. Barrett and Florence regarding the true nature of a haunting and it was clever that they both ended up being a little bit correct.
This book was first published in 1971. Intellectually, I understand it should be judged within the context of its time. As I was reading, I imagined a stereotypical Hollywood producer chomping on a cigar and waving his wife’s copy of The Haunting of Hill House in the air yelling, “Take this boring female twaddle and spice it up with sex, booze, and bloodshed. Make it shocking!” Ultimately, the worst crime this novel commits is a failure to frighten. I am a certified scardy-cat. Aside from a few tingles of apprehension in those first eighty pages, this book never delivered spine-chilling thrills or nightmare-inducing terror.
For me, this book missed the mark on all counts. It wasn’t entertaining, it wasn’t hair-raising, and the writing style felt uninspired.
Final Note: Remember when Sesame Street was brought to you by the letter B and the number 12? Well, Hell House is brought to you by the word STARTED. I swear the word appears on almost every page. Sometimes it’s used more than once in the same paragraph. It’s both comical and distracting.
Glenna Hartwell says
Trish, this is Glenna.
I also think Hell House was brought to you by the word “hissed.” Everyone and everything hissed in the book.
I agree with you on all counts. I usually like to write posts that are essays and not reviews, and my post on Hell House is the first time I have ever written a negative review of one of the term’s books. Your review is a wonderful piece of writing! Thank you for validating my opinions of the novel.
Indeed the book was full of sexual sadism and it was all directed toward the women. Even the scene where Edith “manhandled” Lionel’s privates was gentle by comparison to what poor Florence endured.
I also didn’t find much of the novel frightening. It left me cold.
I thought the writing was stilted and awkward, too, with the prose jumping in and out of past perfect tense in odd ways.
Alexis K. says
I am personally not a fan of Matheson’s long fiction. Except for this one. I enjoyed this novel. Hell House is relatively close to the kind of disturbing things I write. My favorite scene in this book was Florance’s death. When I finished this one, I did think this would not blow over well with some of my coursemates.
I want to focus on why the scene between Edith and Florance was so substantial to the work. Outside of Ben being a considerable skeptic of hauntings and wanting to confirm Florance’s ability was not a hoax, Edith is foreshadowed here. Edith is a very overlooked character. She has had to hold back her true sexual desires for years married to Ben. She is a very sexual person hidden behind this curtain of reservation for the sake of her much older and not so well husband. So, this scene was crucial to what was to come when she finally is possessed to some extent in the middle of the book.
I cannot comment on “classic” horror where male genitalia is mutilated. However, LOTS of B-Horror and modern horror incapacitate men. I believe we classic a lot of very anti-women ideas in all genres. Who knows, maybe in 50 years, something with an assertive feminist attitude and male mutilation will make its spot as a classic. If you want more like this, though, try reading/viewing things about witches! That whole category of horror is about female sexuality, female empowerment, and overall, women are badasses not to be fucked with. Though it is sad, a woman has to be a witch to be a badass still? We women in modern horror can and are working on changing that. It all just takes some time :). They can’t deem a brand new book as a classic in the genre. Have you read the novella To Be Devoured by Tantlinger? She is a graduate of our program. She mostly writes horror poetry, but her debut novella was FABULOUS for female empowerment with a lovely twist. I highly recommend it!
Glenna Hartwell says
Trisha – I’m sorry. I keep calling you Trish! I’ve yelled at myself about already, but I see I’ve done it again.
“repeated non-consensual sexual sadism, homophobia, misogyny.” This is why I didn’t like this book. I agree that up through the history the first night after dinner I was hooked. But as soon as the rest of that began, I was done. Edith not willing to admit her sexuality when looking over Florence at the beginning was okay with me if she came to discover her feelings in a healthy way later, but the book doesn’t give us that. Being sex-repulsed for the most part myself, I found so many of the sexual acts taken out on Florences body appalling.
That being said, the debates between Florence and Ben were very good. I even liked the odd if somewhat cheesy paranormal occurrences, like the dishes floating or the mysterious tarn.
But I would have put the book down at the first time Edith spoke vulgarly. The attacks on Florence at the beginning were uncomfortable, but bearable for the very little I know of body mutilation in horror, but after that point both of the attacks on the ladies got too out of hand. I also would have put it down if not required.
In reply to Alexis’s comment:
I can’t find the name right now because my bookshelf is 5,000 miles away, but I have a non-fiction feminist witchcraft book at home that Trisha might be interested in. It talks a lot about modern female witches taking back their connections to the femininity.
As I was reading, I imagined a stereotypical Hollywood producer chomping on a cigar and waving his wife’s copy of The Haunting of Hill House in the air yelling, “Take this boring female twaddle and spice it up with sex, booze, and bloodshed. Make it shocking!”
THIS MADE ME LAUGH OUT LOUD
Trisha Slay says
Glenna – Trish or Trisha is fine. I use them both interchangeably. Most of my friends actually call me Slay.
Trisha Slay says
Maddy – Hehehehehe!! I would be interested to know the book you’re recommending. But I should mention you are talking to a member of the old crone guard of feminist earth-based spirituality. Back when I lived in Northern California, I helped organize Full Circle charity events (including three Witches Balls), participated in the Spiral Dance ceremonies hosted by Reclaiming (Starhawk’s coven), and enjoyed one memorable beach cleanup event with the Radical Faeries. Since moving to Georgia, I’ve kept my solitary self to myself because … well, it’s Georgia.
Trisha Slay says
Alexis – I totally agree with you that Edith’s repressed sexuality is key to understanding her character and the scene with Florence is how this issue is introduced. But the scene is poorly written. Also, you have a misconception about Edith. Her sexual repression is not a product of her marriage, her marriage is a product of her repression. We’re told this right after she finds the pornographic pictures, sees the brandy, and curls up in bed shivering.
Excerpt from Dec 22, 1970, 10:18 P.M.
Sad, but a common trade-off made by many women in earlier generations.
I will definitely check out Tantlinger’s To Be Devoured … after we complete this RIG and I have time to chose/read my own books. And I love witchy stories! Though I must admit most witchy horror ticks me off because the witch is evil, monstrous, and/or a handmaiden for Satan. Yawn. Or the witch finds her power, abuses her power, then either loses her power or ruins the world. Double yawn. I’m much more Practical Magic than I am Drag Me To Hell.