August 11, 2009

Book Review: "Hell House" by Richard Matheson

Title: Hell House
Author: Richard Matheson
Publisher: OHC by The Viking Press (1971); TPB by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC. (1999)
Pages: 301
Genre: Horror
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-86885-7
ISSN-10: 0-312-86885-5

Ask any horror fan to name the best horror novel with a haunted house as the setting, and I wager a great many will name this one. Until I get around to reading Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Stephen King's The Shining, I will defer to the mob. For now, Richard Matheson's classic sets the bar pretty gosh-darned high for any haunting tale I read from this day forward.

In the remote mountains of Maine, there is a mansion once owned by Emeric Belasco. During it's heyday, Belasco used the house as a veritable den of debauchery and despicability. Now, with all of the residents long since dead, and the house sitting as a shell of it's former glory, a dying millionaire who now owns the property has hired Dr. Lionel Barrett--a specialist in parapsychology and paranormal phenomena--to learn the secret of what is now known as Hell House. The millionaire longs for evidence of the afterlife in his last days, and has given the doctor a week to give him answers one way or the other, and has hired two mediums (Florence Tanner and Benjamin Fischer) to assist. Along with Barrett's wife, Edith, the doctor and the two mediums--one is the lone survivor of the last doomed attempt to learn the secrets of the "Mount Everest of haunted houses"--set up camp in the house and begin their experiments. Almost immediately the four are thrust into an escalating cataclysm of supernatural torture and torment.

I've waited far too long to read this Mathesonian masterpiece. And now that I've read it, I'm an even bigger fan of the man's work. I'm still a mere pup of fandom, having only read Hunted Past Reason, I Am Legend, and a collection of short stories, but I'm comfortable in describing myself as a fan, as I will undoubtedly be reading much more of his work in the coming years.

The game is set within the first chapter and readers get a sense of where the internal conflicts will be occurring, beyond the external trials with the house itself. Dr. Barrett is desperate to prove his latest invention a success--a device he's convinced will expose the true secrets behind the fabled events inside Hell House's walls and end them. His wife, Edith, is in the midst of a mental crisis and cannot bear the idea of going a single week without having her husband at her side. Despite trepidations about the house, she joins him on his journey rather than face another day alone. Florence Tanner is a psychic medium with an exuberance towards learning the house's secrets, and potentially helping any spirits have may need to communicate with her or need her help. Then there's Benjamin Frankin Fischer, the physical medium who was once the most heralded medium in America, during his teens. But his experience in Hell House, thirty years ago ruined him despite getting out of the house with his life. Now, he's returned to face his demons and do what he can to keep the others from meeting the same horrendous deaths as the last group to enter the house.

Matheson did a fine job weaving everything together in a mosaic of macabre, and all with a very quick three hundred pages. The ending is a twist upon twist that leaves you wanting more, even after you've closed the book a final time. I now fully understand why this book is required reading for any self-respecting fan of the genre. It's one of the finest reading experiences I've had in horror or otherwise.

While I may have borrowed this book from my local library, I'll still keep it on my wish list for the time when I can purchase a copy of it to place in my permanent collection. It's too good not to want to read it again ... and again. The mob and I have spoken.

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