Viking, 1971, 279 pages
For over 20 years, Belasco House has stood empty. Regarded as the Mt. Everest of haunted houses, its shadowed walls have witnessed scenes of unimaginable horror and depravity. All previous attempts to probe its mysteries have ended in murder, suicide, or insanity.
But now, a new investigation has been launched, bringing four strangers to Belasco House in search of the ultimate secrets of life and death. A wealthy publisher, brooding over his impending death, has paid a physicist and two mediums to establish the facts of life after death once and for all. For one night, they will investigate the Belasco House and learn exactly why the townsfolk refer to it as the Hell House.
Hell House, which inspired the 1973 film The Legend of Hell House, is Matheson's most frightening and shocking book, and an acknowledged classic of the genre.
If you want to contrast how male and female authors write the same story, you could hardly find a more perfect example than Richard Matheson's Hell House, as compared to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. The two books follow essentially the same plot: a motley crew of paranormal investigators are hired to go into a notorious haunted house and unravel its mysteries, and the house starts picking them off. Matheson acknowledged that Jackson was one of his influences, and the imitation could hardly be more obvious.
Once our band of horror movie cliches enters the house, though, they become very different stories even if the plot is the same. Jackson's novel was fraught with psychological suspense: her haunted house went after the characters with paranoia and mind games. Matheson's haunted house, Belasco House, the "Mount Everest of haunted houses," goes straight to murder and rapine.
Quite risque and gory for a novel written in 1971, Matheson manages to find excuses for his female characters to strip, ogle each other, and ponder the fullness of their breasts and the warmth in their loins even before Belasco House gets started on them. Meanwhile, we learn that Belasco House's eponymous owner was an amoral deviant who gathered a group of similarly depraved individuals to live a life of De Sadean debauchery before they all died and left the house the way it is, so haunted it kills or drives insane anyone who tries to stay there.
So a couple of spiritualists — one of whom is the sole survivor of a previous encounter with Belasco House — a scienist, and his wife all enter the "Mount Everest of haunted houses," a house known to have inflicted Total Party Kills in the past, and promptly go through the checklist of Things Not To Do In a Horror Movie (e.g., split up, follow strange noises, wander off alone, ignore strange phenomena and don't tell anyone else what happened, etc.).
The hauntings become increasingly violent, including a lot of sexual violence, which is described in almost pornographic detail. The tension between the spiritualist who believes that the house is haunted by an actual ghost and the scientist who believes that the house's "haunting" is a product of paranormal phenomena that has nothing to do with spirits of afterlife is an interesting mystery around which the house goes on a killing spree indifferent to what its victims think is killing them.
This doesn't make it a bad book, but it's heavy on shock value and sensationalism. Matheson was never a deep or multilayered writer — he was a storyteller selling stories, and he liked violent action and adventure with plenty of thrills and scary monsters. For that reason, while Hell House is certainly a classic, I wouldn't rank it as one of my favorites. Definitely a good book to read on a dark Halloween night, though.
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Horror movies would become increasingly gory and ghastly throughout the 70s, leading into the slasher-era of the 80s. The Legend of Hell House, at the leading edge of this wave, was relatively tame compared to many of the movies that would follow, and in fact was rather tame compared to the book.
The atmosphere in this movie conjures the proper air of dread, and it's a faithful (PG-rated) adaptation of Matheson's story. The acting is melodramatic and relies on lots of screaming and constipated expressons of agony. Special effects are pretty minimal, but you really don't need a lot of special effects to make a big, shadowy house look spooky.
Like the book, The Legend of Hell House is worth seeing as an archetype of many similar movies, but as haunted house movies go, it's dated and full of cliches now.
Also by Richard Matheson: My reviews of I Am Legend and Shadow on the Sun.
My complete list of book reviews.