With Halloween just around the corner, it seemed appropriate to seek out some horripilating holiday-themed reading. This year I’ve got haunted houses on the brain, both from recently rereading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and also from touring a few of the local haunted attractions. So when I ran across a copy of Richard Matheson’s *Hell House * the other day, it seemed like the perfect choice.
Somehow I’d never gotten around to reading Hell House, or of seeing the movie based on the novel. However, I’d been given to understand that it was intended as a sort of counterpoint to Shirley Jackson’s classic. I seem to recall encountering a quote from Matheson that specifically contrasted the largely psychological, ambiguous atmosphere of Hill House with his own novel, which instead presented a haunted house where “you damned well know it’s haunted” (or words to that effect—I have been unable to track down the source of the quote, and concede that it may be pure hallucination.)
So. Last night, as the shadows lengthened and the last pale gleam of twilight faded at last into dusk, the heavy silence broken only by the mournful cry of the whippoorwhill, I immersed myself in the experience that is Hell House.
Today I am returned among you to bear witness: *Hell House * may be the stupidest book ever to exist.
It is lavishly, ostentatiously, relentlessly stupid, literally from first page to last. It is a perfect example of the Idiot Plot, populated by sublimely stupid characters whose only purpose is to make the stupidest possible choices at the worst possible times. This book is Battlefield Earth-quality stupid. If the female characters weren’t all grown women, this could be a Piers Anthony novel.
The book does indeed appear to intentionally parallel The Haunting of Hill House, operating on roughly the level of a Mad Magazine style spoof, or perhaps more accurately one of those porn movies that parodize other films—the kind with names like Brassiere to Eternity. It presents an unrelentingly coarse, painfully deliberate enstupiding of Shirley Jackson’s novel. The title, the characters, the plot— nearly every feature of the original has been painstakingly recreated in much stupider form. Simply to catalogue the stupidized elements would be a task spanning many pages.
It’s difficult to say whether *Hell House * is intended purely as an insult to its predecessor, although that was certainly my first impression. Occasionally it wanders from this goal by introducing elements that weren’t lifted from the original; but these elements are treated with the same thunderous stupidity as everything else in the book, so in the end it really doesn’t matter.
I was astonished to discover that some people apparently find Hell House to be a scary story. Of the 125 reviews at Amazon Books, 94 readers gave Hell House a rating of 4 or 5 stars. I believe that research would establish that all these people were high. Even Robert Arthur’s “Three Investigators” mysteries occasionally hit on a chilling turn of phrase, but such moments are conspicuously absent in Hell House. It’s simply not a scary book.
It is, however, extremely lurid. The evil of Hell House is a legacy of freaky sex, and Matheson makes sure that this aspect is constantly center stage and exaggerated beyond all credibility. This relentlessly explicit parade of carnality is probably the most significant point of contrast between this book and The Haunting of Hill House (aside from the larger distinction of this one being total crap). Characters are fondled, straddled, assaulted and penetrated in various ways. One of the characters, a spiritualist medium who communicates with the afterlife mostly using her breasts, gets violated like five or eight times before finally being raped to death by a giant crucifix.
No, seriously. One of the house’s selling points is its fully appointed Satanic Chapel, and the centerpiece is a life-sized, anatomically erect depiction of Christ. The crucifix is torn off the wall by psychic forces, and instead of simply crushing the woman to death, it somehow fatally rapes her instead. This is one scene that Matheson doesn’t describe explicitly, probably because he couldn’t imagine any possible description that wouldn’t sound incredibly goofy. “The giant cross levitated above her, wobbling and thrusting…”
Another feature that this book shares with porn movies is incredibly bad writing. The very first paragraph of *Hell House * includes the sentence: “He felt rather like a character in a latter-day Gothic romance.” Four sentences in, and one of the book’s characters is already telling us that he feels like a character in a book. Bulwer-Lytton Prize contestants would reject this sort of thing as too obvious.
It is no exaggeration to state that every single character in this book is a roaring idiot. The plot makes no sense from start to finish. There’s exactly one vaguely plausible occurrence, right at the beginning: the stated motivation for the plot hook. An elderly plutocrat becomes frightened as death approaches, and abruptly decides to seek a definitive answer about the truth of whether an afterlife exists. Because he’s rich, his solution to the problem is to pay other people an assload of money to find out the answer for him.
So far, so good. This could happen. However, he decides that the most fruitful course of action is to hire four people, none of whom have any plan to provide scientific proof of the afterlife, and send them to study a haunted house that has massacred every other group investigating it. Oh, and they have a deadline of a week, otherwise they get nothing. Some may recognize this general arrangement from that one episode of the Flintstones where Fred had to earn his long-lost uncle’s inheritance by spending a night in Spookstone Manor.
The leader of the expedition is Doctor Barrett, a famous psychic researcher. Thanks to his years of study, the doctor has no idea how to prove whether spirits exist or not. Fortunately, by a striking coincidence, he has spent years creating plans for a machine that can’t prove whether spirits exist either. Nonetheless the doctor convinces Wealthy Guy to fund its construction anyway. I suppose this opportunistic deception to procure academic funding might also count as a realistic plot element, although it is not actually confronted as such in the book.
The other two investigators have been specially chosen for their obvious lack of ability to provide any proof either. One is the aforementioned spiritualist medium, who has the ability to contact spirits and ask them whether they exist or not. The other is a burned-out psychic who was the sole survivor of the last investigation, and who hopes to conquer his past failure in some unspecified manner that doesn’t involve providing any proof of spirits. The doctor is also accompanied by his wife, as is customary when exploring a house of pure evil that has already eaten the previous two expeditions.
The house itself was built by Emeric Belasco, a cartoon version of Aleister Crowley, as a site for his never-ending satanic orgies. Known as “The Roaring Giant,” Belasco used his mesmeric powers to drive his guests to ever greater acts of depravity, and eventually everyone in the house went crazy and died. Oh, and Belasco himself was never found. Because the doctor has spent decades investigating haunted houses, he knows absolutely nothing about this history, so the burnout ex-psychic guy has to explain it all to him.
The medium initially suspects that the chief cause of all these hauntings is Belasco. However, halfway through the book, she changes her mind and suggests that the hauntings might instead be orchestrated by Belasco. Ultimately, however, neither of these theories is the real answer. Instead, in the end she discovers the shocking truth: the hauntings have all been caused by… Belasco! Yes, even though he is the only suspect ever named, it still takes her the entire book to unravel this mystery.
The doctor has his own agenda: to present the scientific community with indisputable proof of psychic phenomena. In the universe of Hell House, spirit mediums have no difficulty conjuring any number of paranormal effects at any time, in plain sight and in the presence of any number of witnesses and/or recording apparatus. Still, mainstream science refuses to acknowledge that these phenomena exist. This suggests that the stupidity exhibited by our four researchers may be a global condition on their planet.
The doctor has a very interesting strategy to prove the reality of the paranormal. Recall that he convinced Wealthy Guy to build his mystery machine, even though it had nothing to do with the afterlife debate. Instead, it is actually designed to prove the existence of psychic phenomena, which it does by destroying them. The doctor believes that psychic manifestations are a form of electromagnetic radiation. He intends to use his device to erase this energy, leaving no psychic manifestations that can be independently verified or studied in any way. This will force the scientific community to concede the reality of psychic phenomena. Does anyone but me see the potential flaw in this plan?
At this point I must point out that Richard Matheson was a scriptwriter for Star Trek. I mention this because the doctor explains that his machine will eliminate Hell House’s psychic field by—and this is truly a beautiful thing—reversing the polarity. Goddamn, the smile I got when I read that phrase made this whole stinking book worthwhile.
The machine works! Hell House is clean, and everyone can go home! Except there’s still 40 pages left in the book, so probably not. These sorts of false endings don’t work quite as well in novels as in the movies. Anyway, no doubt worried that the polarity-reversal ending wasn’t stupid enough, Matheson tacks on another ending, also lifted from Star Trek. In this case it’s the episode “Day of the Dove,” by Jerome Bixby-- the one where the Enterprise is taken over by an energy being that feeds on hatred, and Kirk and the Klingons defeat it by laughing at it and slapping each other manfully on the back. So I guess Shirley Jackson wasn’t the only one Matheson borrowed from after all.
Similarly, the psychic burnout guy manages to uncover Belasco’s darkest secret: in life, he was really short. Seriously, that’s it. His entire monstrous legacy—the orgies, murders, psychic domination-- all merely symptoms of terminal Short Man’s Disease. Oh, and he was also born out of wedlock. I submit that most Satanic archfiends wouldn’t be unduly troubled by such a detail, but whatever. Armed with this insight, Burnout guy goads Belasco’s spirit out of hiding, then mercilessly taunts and shames him into oblivion.
–We also learn that Belasco wasn’t destroyed by the doctor’s machine because he had walled himself up in a secret lead-lined chamber. So apparently, before he died, he secretly designed and installed countermeasures just in case some idiot invented a ghost-erasing machine decades later.
–In the end, the medium and the doctor are dead, of crucifix-rape and drowning respectively. The investigation has failed miserably, and no one will be paid. The two survivors pause outside the house. Burnout guy turns to the doctor’s widow and says softly, “Merry Christmas.” The End.
This book transcends mere accidental stupidity. It is stupid on purpose.
Now, Richard Matheson is a good writer. He wrote for The Twilight Zone. He wrote for Star Trek. He wrote I Am Legend; he wrote The Incredible Shrinking Man. He wrote “Born of Man and Woman,” which is probably the most widely read modern short horror story, simply by virtue of the fact that English Lit textbooks love to dissect it so much. He even gave us the Zuni fetish doll that menaced Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror. Richard Matheson can write good stories when he wants to.
So there’s no way he could have possibly managed to make this book so relentlessly idiotic unless he was trying. You don’t just set out to create a grotesque mockery of somebody else’s classic ghost story without a strong motivation. Somewhere, there must be an interview or fanzine article that provides the key insight into why this book exists.
I have two competing theories so far. My first thought was that, for some reason, Richard Matheson hates Shirley Jackson, and that this book was written out of personal animosity. At first this didn’t seem too likely; authors are a notoriously cantankerous bunch, and yet they seldom waste their energy writing entire books intended as vicious parodies of each other. Why would Matheson feel compelled to craft a full-length novel solely for the purpose of mocking Shirley Jackson?
As it happens, I may have stumbled upon a motive. While reading Hell House, I noticed an interesting thing: while every other element of the book was presented in a uniformly unbelievable manner, there was one conspicuous exception. Matheson goes into great detail about the mechanics and paraphernalia of a spiritualist séance, and this material alone comes across as convincing and solidly researched. Matheson obviously knows something about Spiritualism.
Readers of Shirley Jackson’s novel will recall that, while the main characters are generally presented as realistically three-dimensional personalities, there are two exceptions: Mrs. Montague and her assistant. They are both fervent spiritualists, and they are played strictly for laughs. In fact, the house itself holds them so much in contempt that it doesn’t even waste its time terrorizing them. Could this dismissive attitude toward Spiritualism in Jackson’s popular and critically acclaimed novel have piqued Matheson’s ire, causing him to take personal offense?
My other theory is inspired by the book’s patently impossible setup: a scandalously wealthy guy offers four people assloads of money to prove whether spirits exist, but only if they can do so within a week, and while staying in a house of pure evil that kills everyone who enters. This is insane no matter how you slice it, but the critical detail here is this: Wealthy Guy is explicitly identified as a publisher.
I suggest that this may be a significant choice on Matheson’s part. Everyone has to pay the bills, after all. So let’s say that you’re a successful novelist and screenwriter known for your fantasy and horror writing. Then one day a publisher, having heard that you’ve written spooky stories before, offers you an assload of money to write something just like the popular Shirley Jackson novel, only with a whole lot of sex in it. It’s a sure-fire bestseller! Do you turn him down, preserving your artistic integrity at the risk of losing future work? Or do you follow his instructions to the letter, by writing the trashiest Jackson ripoff imaginable, and collect your paycheck knowing that there’s a market even for pulp?
When I was a kid, I had the opportunity to view the aftermath of a high-speed train collision. This book inspires the same feelings of awe. As a story, it has not an iota of merit-- but as a successfully published work, it is fascinating from a purely teratological standpoint. It’s the literary equivalent of a color medical atlas of birth defects. Why was such a monstrosity allowed to happen? How could it have inspired a movie adaptation? And why was Roddy MacDowell in that movie?
These are dark waters. There is a mystery here, and I need answers. I’ve invited you all here because I want you to solve this mystery for me. Should you succeed, your fee will be astronomical (by which I mean ‘not found on this planet’). However, I require proof. Definitive proof. You have one week. And by the way, merry Christmas.