Monday, August 1, 2011

Hell House by Richard Matheson



While I was reading Hell House by Richard Matheson, I kept thinking to myself "Thank god I was born and raised in San Francisco after the sexual revolution."

Sex plays a HUGE part of this novel but it's the kind of sex horror writers from that era love to write about; 70 percent Penthouse Forum, 30 percent hand-wringing WASP-y sensibilities. Sexual repression runs rampant through the character's psyches and the evil spirits residing in the haunted house torment them with pornographic images, scenes of debauched orgies, and....gasp and shock and awe....a chapel with a crucifix equipped with a large erect penis. A woman has sex with a corpse (sorta) and is forced into having a lesbian encounter with the repressed young wife of the arrogant, impotent professor. The ghosts come from the Rob Zombie/Pazuzu dialogue school of Saying Really Foul Shit To Shock Conservative Sensibilities. I'm sure it was all terribly cage rattling to the sensibilities of some people, but to me the whole thing seemed juvenile.

I'm not scared of sex.



Okay, I'm scared of some of the real, practical stuff around sexuality that everyone is afraid of. Will I ever get laid again? Will I by any good at it? Will the person I get naked with take one look at my fat naked ass and laugh? But the novel seems to be written to rattle the cage of someone with a much more reserved outlook than my own. While I'm not the Marquis de Sade by any stretch of the imagination, I'm not rattled by most of the stuff on the page. I read my Dan Savage, I've lived in slutty cosmopolitan cities my whole life, I had my wild days, and I've walked through the Folsom Street Fair and "seen" (cough) more debauched shit than the book covers.

And all that stuff is done by normal people. Public sex, group sex, gay sex, all that stuff isn't done by depraved monsters rutting in the mud at the expense of their humanity. It's done by people. Ever notice how the most wild sex acts in horror fiction are always accompanied murder, as if the two things run hand in hand and it's a narrow line between murder and fucking? It's like the message is that really wild sex is always one-sided, predatory, and possessive, and there's little distinction between consensual wild rutting and cutting your partner's throat mid-coitus.

But, yeah, I'm not that repressed. I don't find sex particularly shocking or taboo-breaking, so when I read a description of a bunch of psychos fucking, all I can think is that the writer has issues and he assumes that I do too.

But then, that's just me.

Not to dog overmuch on Richard Matheson. I am a big fan. I've read a lot of his major work and a bunch of his stories and it's clear the debt that Stephen King owes to him. He's a great writer, Hell House was a very interesting and engaging book, but the view of sexuality at the core of the book didn't work for me. If the engine behind your horror story are taboos that the average slutty modern person doesn't share, you're gonna run out of steam early.

Reading the book, I couldn't help but think back to Clive Barker's work, particularly The Hellbound Heart. Barker has said that his work is meant to titillate as much as terrify and his stories are full of wild sexuality. But Barker doesn't approach the material the way most horror writers deal with sex. It's a part of his characters' experiences, not something to draw anxiety from. It feels more mature and in line with my sensibilities.



Oh, wait, in all this hot nonsense, I didn't actually synopsize the story.

Hell House tells the story of four paranormal investigators hired by a rich man to investigate the Belasco house, a haunted house of such dreadful malevolence that several previous investigative attempts have ended in tragedy. The noble group includes a beautiful clairvoyant with a new-agey take on Christian ideals, a polio-addled scientist and his significantly younger wife, and a previous survivor of one of the doomed earlier investigations. Each of them brings their own interpretation of the hauntings in the house and their safety and sanity is tested by the vicious spirit at the center of the house, a hedonistic deviant with a messianic complex.

It's impossible to ignore the obvious debt that this story owes to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, which also has a group of deeply conflicted individuals trying to puzzle out a rational explanation to the supernatural events that surround them, but Matheson did a great job drawing out these characters. It's a hoary old truism that the best haunted house stories feature characters whose internal traumas power and fuel the hauntings, but the characters in Hell House are really engaging.

Florence, the former actress turned spiritual leader, is usually the sort of character I have a difficult time getting behind. She's essentially, in her own compassionate and gentle way, a religious fanatic of sorts. There's something slightly arrogant about her demeanor; she knows exactly what's going on in the house and the best way to combat it, and her unwillingness to critically examine her surroundings leads to her destruction. She's essentially the house's patsy and she completely buys the con game the house sells her. Yet despite all my complaints about her gullibility, I found myself admiring her courage and selflessness. She enters the house and reaches out to the spirits because she actually wants to help them, and she risks herself time and again to reach out to the "spirit" of the house's owner's son. For all her good intentions, her story ends in the most harsh way imaginable. Her eventual fate genuinely squicked me out, particularly due to the sexualized elements of it, but I got behind her and I found her heroic.

On the polar opposite end of the spectrum, representing the calm rational world of science is Dr. Lionel Barrett. Unlike many science characters in these sorts of tales, he's not there to scoff rudely at evidence of the supernatural. He's a parapsychologist, but he's view of the source of the energy is refreshingly interesting. I liked his take on the occult and his fancy machine, which he believed would dissipate the energy in Hell House. I also liked his relationship with his wife. It was tender and affectionate, if sexless. One of my complaints on the story is that I felt Matheson doesn't set up the Barrett's bedroom woes early enough, but they work as an engaging and supportive couple. It's got a weird father/daughter dynamic going on and Edith is probably a big ol' confused closet case, but I felt they were portrayed realistically.

The other two characters, Ben Fischer and Edith Barrett, are well-defined and engaging. The shell-shocked man who survived a previous attack on the house and the neurotic wife of the doctor are heroic when needed, weak when called to be, and keep the tale humming along. They're good. Go read the book if you want to learn more.

One of my favorite aspect of the book is how well flushed-out the spirit haunting the house is. Most haunting stories are amorphous entities with ill-defined abilities and agendas. They exist to provide the creak in the floor, the rattling chains, and the whispered threat. Matheson paints Belasco in very specific strokes, with a very specific endgame and weaknesses to be exploited. He's very much a character in the story, at once powerful and ruined by his own egotism. In general, I like ambiguity and mystery, but I liked that Hell House represented a very clear antagonist with a very specific goal in messing with the heroes.



Hell House is a classic of horror literature. It's built like a Swiss pocket watch in its taut precision and was engaging on a craft and characterization level alone. The primary tools of horror the book used to rattle my cage leaned too much toward a melodramatic sexuality, which felt childish. Still, the book was definitely interesting and engaging. I'd recommend it to people who like solid haunted house stories.

5 comments:

Cin Ferguson said...

Joe,

I enjoyed your comments and found our perspectives (given our age/generation differences) interesting. Since I lived during the timeperiod, I know that at the time this story was written it was groundbreaking in its shocking 'sex' scenes, but by standards today (as you pointed out) it was not so shocking. We talked about how we enjoy the 'suspense' approach in horror, and while this novel gave some of that it was lacking. I think we agree that the best aspect of the novel was the development of the house and its evil entity. Matheson did a great job developing the 'house' antagonist and his descriptions contributed to a fast paced read. Great critique/overview, and I really liked how you presented your comments. Well done.

Gina Greenway said...

"If the engine behind your horror story is to run your face into taboos that the average slutty modern person doesn't have, you're gonna run out of steam early."

I love this! And wholeheartedly agree. The modern horror story often shows teenagers breaking down taboos - and then taking a knife in the throat on Crystal Lake - or being stabbed by someone masquerading as their sheet-covered, beer-toting boyfriend. I don't necessarily understand the frequent parallels with sex/horror, either. And as much as I enjoy Matheson, I agree that the sex in the story seemed more to titillate than set a creepy mood. Notwithstanding some criticisms (especially the ending), I, too, thought Matheson did a masterful job creating the house. As always, your critiques are enjoyable (and reading them makes me miss talking to you even more).

Scott A. Johnson said...

It's always interesting to see what different people take away from different stories. Yes, back in the day, it was shocking and new, but today, we seem to have no taboos left. Nothing shocking there. The house itself, to me, was always the best character in the house, which will be something discussed later in the course.

Thanks!

Jennifer Loring said...

The book really feels dated now that there are so few taboos left. I agree with pretty much the entire first half of your post. I have to part company with you on the characters, though. To me, they were flat and unlikeable. Like Scott, I found the house (and by extension, Belasco) to be the best character in the book.

Kristina said...

Great post. I appreciate that someone else didn't find the sex shocking. I did find some of the repetition annoying, though!