I finished my reread of Hell House last night, and it does, in fact, hold up rather well. It was, frankly, a most satisfying way to close out my Halloween Horror month of reading; even if it was a reread, and a book I’ve read several times before.
I first read it when I was a teenager; it was one of the many mass market paperbacks I found on the wire racks at the Zayre’s in Bolingbrook. The cover was rather non-distinct; black, with a photograph of a woman in a red halter dress, carrying a candelabra and looking back over her shoulder, a terrified look on her face, her long dark hair being blown backwards by the same wind pushing the candle flames backwards, with the title above it in red letters: HELL HOUSE. I had watched The Haunting several years earlier, and was absolutely terrified by it; I hadn’t yet realized that it was based on a Shirley Jackson novel. So when I saw Hell House, I did think that it might be the same story, and of course Hollywood had to change it to Hill House. So I bought it, took it home and started reading.
It was similar, but it wasn’t the same story. By any stretch of the imagination.
It had been raining hard since five o’clock that morning. Brontean weather, Dr. Barrett thought. He repressed a smile. He felt rather like a character in some latter-day Gothic romance. The driving rain, the cold, the two-hour ride from Manhattan in one of Deutsch’s long black leather-upholstered limousines. The interminable wait in this corridor when disconcerted-looking men and women hurried in and out of Deutsch’s bedroom, glancing at him occasionally.
He drew his watch from its vest pocket and raised the lid. He’d been here more than an hour now. What did Deutsch want of him? Something to do with parapsychology, most likely. The old man’s chain of newspapers and magazines were forever printing articles on the subject. “Return from the grave”; “The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die”–always sensational, rarely factual.
Wincing at the effort, Dr. Barrett lifted his right leg over his left. He was a tall, slightly overweight man in his middle fifties, his thinning blond hair unchanged in color, though his trimmed beard showed traces of white. He sat erect on the straight-back chair, staring at the door to Deutsch’s bedroom.
What Deutsch, an old and dying billionaire, is proof that either that afterlife exists, or that it doesn’t. In order to get that proof, he is willing to pay an almost obscene amount of money, and do pretty much anything. He is, in fact, assembling a team to send to the “Mount Everest of haunted houses,” the Belasco house in Maine; more commonly known as Hell House.
Like in The Haunting of Hill House, a team of four people are going to go into the haunted house to, basically, see the phenomena, observe and document it, and, if possible, cleanse the house of the infernal spirits haunting the house. Two teams have gone into the house in the past; with one exception, all of them were either killed or went insane.
That one survivor, Ben Fischer, is a part of this expedition.
Dr. Bartlett, though, is no Dr. Montague; who merely wanted to experience the phenomenon at Hill House and write a paper about it; Dr. Bartlett’s life’s work has been based on the theory that hauntings, or so-called paranormal phenomena, are not actually caused by ghosts or spirits, but are simply residual energy. He has designed a machine that will reverse that energy and therefore cleanse Hell House–or any other haunted house. His much-younger wife, Edith, believes in him and his work…but there are issues within their marriage; he is a polio victim and the polio has also left him impotent; Edith herself has issues with sex and her own sexuality and this sterile, sexless marriage is a refuge for her.
The other two members of the party, Ben Fischer and Florence Tanner, are both mediums. Ben was a mere teenager when he went into Hell House the first time; he was the lone survivor, the one Hell House could not kill or drive insane. He has since stopped used his psychic gift. Florence is a beautiful woman who has her own ministry and believes her gifts come from God; she believes ghosts are spirits that have not moved on and it is her duty to use her gift to help them move on, through love and the power of prayer. She and Dr. Bartlett have competing beliefs and values…and once they are all inside of Hell House, the terror truly begins.
Richard Matheson was a great writer; many of his writings were made into films–Stir of Echoes, Somewhere in Time, I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man–and many of his short stories became classic Twilight Zone episodes–he wrote “Terror at 20,000 Feet”–and Hell House was filmed as The Legend of Hell House, which I also saw as a teen and it absolutely terrified me.
It’s awesome that the book holds up.