DEAR Rec: Hell House

New computer arrives Thursday, in time for the Midnight Rec on Saturday.
DEAR Rec: Hell House by Richard Matheson
First, a quick note on why I read this book. The IMDB horror board is attempting to start up a sort-of monthly book club through the site. The first selection was Hell House. The discussion begins on 25 July. Exact details are here. We'd be glad to have more participants than have already signed up. "I'd rather die than leave."
Hell House is one of those novels that people familiar with the genre know of, but may know more about the film adaptation (The Legend of Hell House adapted by Matheson himself) than the actual book. Even more people are probably familiar with the similar novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (released about 20 years earlier), which ostensibly functions in the same way. And even more people probably know those film adaptations (both called The Haunting, one in 1963 and one in 1999).
All of this is truly a shame. What Matheson accomplishes on the page is truly admirable. By 1971, even the gothic haunted house film was becoming passe, let alone the gothic-styled novel, a favorite form of authors in the 19th century. He tips his hat to the history of the haunting novel while innovating the format with the extreme content that was becoming more common place in modern horror films.
Take, for example, the simple action of lighting a candle that went out. Matheson manipulates the language in the same way Hell House manipulates its visitors: "He declined his candle to relight hers." It feels old fashioned, almost like a lost turn of phrase from the height of the house in the 1910's/20's. The phrase also flows naturally in the text, as the house slowly wraps the new tenants in the present time, the 1970's, under its control.
Sure, there are sloppy moments that don't work as well: "Standing, she walked across the rug." It's great he specified that she didn't sit and walk across the rug. Still, I'd rather see an author experiment with too much description done in artful ways than receive too few details.
For every clunker like that, there's something truly beautiful: "Now he was emotionally crippled, a latter-day Samson, self-shorn of might."
If I have one complaint about the novel, it's my own fault for knowing too much horror writing that came afterwards. The final twist of the ending comes across as predictable today, old hat, passe. I can't fault Matheson for it - he lays out everything you need to know to buy the shifts without throwing in too many extras. There are red herrings, dead ends, and seemingly dropped plot points that pop up at the least expected times. A modern reader might have difficulty reconciling the ending.
Acquire a copy however you can. I know my local library didn't have a single novel by Matheson, though other libraries in the county did. It also appears the most recent edition of the book came out in 1999, though there's a new illustrated adaptation. I can't speak for how they handle the material at all. Try to find a copy, but be warned - the content is at times very graphic, both in violence and in sexuality. This is not a kind, gentle ghost story. It's one that kicks you in the teeth after providing you with a free cleaning at the dentist's office.

Labels: DEAR rec