So many spoilers you wouldn’t believe.
I decided to treat myself for Halloween by reading Richard Matheson’s Hell House.
Before I delve into all the opinionated schizzle, let me give you an outline of the plot and major characters. Four people are sent to spend a week at the world’s most haunted house in exchange for $10,000 – for reasons which are neither important, nor compelling.
These four people are: Lionel Barret – some sort of paranormal ‘scientist’ who wants to prove that ghosts aren’t real. His wife, Edith – 20 years his junior. Florence Tanner, the spiritualist medium. And Benjamin Franklin Fischer, the physical medium who survived a stay at the Hell House 30 years previously.
Prior to Hell House, my exposure to Matheson came primarily from reading I Am Legend, which I seem to remember appreciating – particularly the ending – but not having any great desire to ever revisit. And a radio adaptation of Stir of Echoes, which oddly left me yearning for the Kevin Bacon movie. In general though, the movie adaptations of his novels are best forgotten.
I finished Hell House in two days, so I suppose I can say it was gripping. And entertaining. Not always in the right ways though.
I won’t beat about the bush, Hell House disappointed me. Intensely. It’s described by Stephen King as the most terrifying haunted house story ever written, which on reflection, reminds me why I don’t read much Stephen King.
My major criticisms of Hell House are threefold. Firstly – the rampant sexism. Secondly, the heinous use of pseudo-science and techno-babble. Thirdly. the lazy-story telling.
Yes, I appreciate that Hell house was written in the 1970s, so rampant sexism and themes of psychic pseudo-science are virtually inevitable. But this really crossed the line. With gusto. And then some.
Let’s take a closer look at our characrers first.
Florence Tanner. Florence is a spiritualist medium, complete with a native American spirit guide – Red Bull. Yes, I’m sorry to say, she does the voice and everything. To say Florence is annoying would be an understatement. She is a walking conglomeration of feminine clichés to the extent that she becomes a bad joke.
A beautiful film star who leaves Hollywood to pursue her calling as a spiritualist. She is emotional, impetuous, naive and romantic. In hell house she falls in love with the spirit of Daniel Belasco and fixated upon freeing him from his hellish imprisonment.
Florence is juxtaposed against Lionel Barrett. He is scientific, authoritative, confident and certain that Florence is not only mistaken in her beliefs – but lying to herself. She is so desperate to believe that her views on the spirit world are correct, that she unleashes violent attacks upon both Barrett and herself. She is patronised by the scientist, used for his experiments, her opinions dismissed and her actions diminished. He pities her.
As a psychic, she is inferior to Fischer. He remains withdrawn, protecting himself from the house. She is naive. Too open. Too emotional. Eager to save the spirits within the house. An emotional liability.
Then there’s Edith Barret. Married to a man 20 years her senior, she is a closeted lesbian in denial with serious intimacy issues. She simpers around her husband, more secretary than spouse.
Both Florence and Edith’s characters are peculiarly jarring. Edith is supposed to be young, but her actions and words are those of a repressed, middle-aged frump. Florence by contrast often acts like a headstrong teen. Both allow themselves to be ordered around by the male characters, being sent off to bed or reprimanded like an errant child. Edith is often described as looking like a child, which only serves to make her relationship with Barret even more perverse.
Lionel is described as an impotent cripple. Unable and perhaps also unwilling to satisfy his wife sexually. His leg and his body weakened by polio. Edith is more a nurse maid to him. They sleep in separate beds. Yet she is terrified of being parted from him, the only time they have spent apart during their marriage left her in the depths of depression and despair. Being alone, for her, is an even worse prospect than being in Hell House.
There are some genuinely touching moments between Edith and Lionel. But it is a curious relationship.
The novel is preoccupied with the women’s sexuality and often makes it the focus of the horror. Edith is thrown into psychological torment at the prospect of being a lesbian – or indeed having any strong sexual urges at all. Of course this is how the house gets to Edith – playing on her repressed sexuality, her past sexual abuse.
Both women lose control sexually, they demand sexual gratification, attempt seduction and – on several ludicrous occasions – brandish their tits like dangerous weapons. The men, of course, maintain their sexual composure. They are brought down by far loftier pretentions such as pride and ego. They easily reject their sexual advances.
An early section where Florence has to strip and expose herself (cavities and all) to Edith left me seething. The extent to which we are meant to view Barret as an arogant misogynistic bastard, how much is simply ‘of the time’ and how much is due to his characterisation as an ego obsessed man of science is hard to tell. But it doesn’t matter. His relationships with the women are detestable – as is he, much of the time.
The novel exploits sexual horror throughout but again this is focused exclusively on the women. Barret dismisses his impotency, the house does not use it against him. His interests are solely in his experiments. Fisher has some feelings for Florence but they are not overtly sexual.
So it is left to Florence to be humiliated by inviting a ghost into her bed in anticipation of freeing him from limbo (yes it’s as stupid as it sounds) only to be raped by a rotting corpse. She is impaled, her vagina mutilated, by the phallus on a collapsing crucifix (yes you read that right). Edith is stalked through the house by visions of her rapist father and impotent husband , both with comically oversized genitals.
And rather than being scary it all feels exploitative and titalating. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
The women are defined primarily through their relationships with men – as though they cannot be defined by their own actions. Edith is an appendage. When Fischer sums up the contributions of the characters at the end of the novel – Edith’s name is conspicuously absent. Sorry Edith. You contributed fuck all. Apart from coffee. And sexual angst. And tits.
Florence’s major impetus throughout is to save Daniel Balesco. Again. A woman defined by desires and relationships. She is more substantial than Edith and she does have a strong desire to prove herself and her beliefs in the spirit world – but she is repeatedly undermined by being shown to be naive. Or simply through being ignored.
And as for Fisher – he says and does very little except to angst for most of the book. Then he gets reflective about this at the end and finally does something. Too late for Florence and Lionel.
The more I think about hell house. The more I hate it. Too much of the book relies upon seventies psychic pseudo science hocum to form the crux of the plot. Matheson tries to set up this juxtaposition between Barret’s science and Florence’s spiritualism – but both sides present us with so much poorly defined horse shit this falls flat on its face. Rather than picking a side the reader is instead left scratching their head and wondering what the fuck they’re on about. Meanwhile Edith looks on anxiously and Fisher silently smokes a cigarette.
And then there’s the ending. Oh lord the ending. Not one big reveal but about four. Firstly that Lionel’s machine had failed (or had it?) Then that Belasco is the only ghost (I think) and then that Belasco was actually an angry midget who chopped off his legs and stuck on some wooden stilts to make him feel better. No I’m not kidding.
Matheson made some clever characters but then loses them somehow. The denouement is clumsy and leaves the reader totally confused and underwhelmed. Questions are left unanswered.
And worst of all it isn’t scary. It’s tense at times but any real sense of malevolence is destroyed by the absurd.
I’m sorry to say I really hated this.