Posted on April 22, 2011 by Steven Dawes
Available at Amazon.com
Written by Richard Matheson
Good evening… and welcome to another episode of “Horror Masterpiece Theatre”. I am your host Steven Dawes. As some of you may know, I’ve always found ghost stories to be entertaining and interesting. I find them so interesting in fact that was a co-founder and the general manager of local ghost hunting group for a few years. While I’ve since retired my ghost hunting days, I still enjoy a ghostly tale or three. And it was here where my unexpected visit to “Hell House” began.
Over the last few semesters at my school, a fellow student (who by night is known as “Craig”) has been in several of the same classes I’ve attended. As fate would have it, we were partnered up for a project together last semester, and as we worked on our project we got to know each other and discovered our mutual appreciation for the paranormal. In a surprise gesture of coolness, Craig handed me a copy of the book “Hell House” and asked me to consider reading it over break and returning it to him with my thoughts on it next semester (we discovered that we’re attending two of the same classes again next semester).
While reading the back cover of the book, something about it seemed familiar to me somehow, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was vaguely familiar with the name Richard Matheson, but again I couldn’t pin point why. The book mentioned that Mr. Matheson is the author of I am Legend, but I’ve only seen the movie (never read the book) so I was still in the dark as to why I knew his name. Needless to say I was intrigued and accepted his proposal.
I’d gotten about fifty pages into Hell House when again I was struck again by that familiar feeling that I knew of this story somehow. Then I thought of my mom, who’s an avid book reader and fan of the paranormal as well. I suspected that she may have an answer to why this story was familiar to me, no matter how vague and I was correct. My mom has been a fan of this particular book since she was fourteen years old. She enjoyed the movie “The Legend of Hell House” when it was released back in 1971 and searched out the book it was based on to read it soon after. This is why I was faintly familiar with both Hell House and Richard Matheson; I vaguely recall the movie (haven’t seen it since grade school I think) and as a writer of some of the old Twilight Zone episodes and author of a few other books in my mom’s collection (like “Stir of Echoes” for example), he was something of a household name growing up for me. With one curiosity sated, I set out to settle another curiosity; what is the secret of Hell House?
For over twenty years, the Belasco house has stood empty. Regarded as the “Mount Everest of haunted houses”, it’s an ominous and isolated mansion that’s witnessed every sort of unimaginable acts of horror and depravity through its owner Emeric Belasco and his many deviant house guests and visitors. Nothing was taboo or sacred in this mansion it seems, and the endless days of debauchery continued right up till the literal end as eventually starvation and death claimed the lives of everyone inside. Interestingly, Emeric Belasco’s body was never found.
In the years since then, there have been two paranormal investigations conducted inside the Belasco house; both of which ended in disaster. Every member of these two expeditions into the mansion (with one exception) has been destroyed by murder, suicide or insanity. For these reasons, the Belasco mansion has earned a fitting nickname, the “Hell House”. Well, it’s now under new ownership, and its new owner has arranged for a new team of paranormal investigators to seek out the secrets of Hell House, including a Parapsychologist with his assistant wife and two mediums, one of which happens to be the sole survivor of the last failed expedition. What follows from here is simply the best haunted house story that I’ve ever read!
It’s a quick and easy read, and yet it’s very imaginative and unique in its approach and catches you off guard on a regular basis! Startling images, horrific visions, waking nightmares and lots of scares are generously peppered throughout the book! I suspect that Hell House was probably a very innovative story in its day and many haunted house tales written have since have taken notes from it. Where ghost stories older than Hell House generally relied on the mysterious and gothic nature of the house itself (and while Hell House itself is intriguing in its own right), the characters take the center stage in this story. They are all unique people who have their own reasons for going into Hell House and each one finds themselves battling their inner demons as much as they do the ghostly residents of the house in an effort to survive their five day expedition.
One of my favorite angles of the book is how Matheson spends equal time with both the parapsychologists and the mediums. Being a former ghost hunter myself, I fully appreciated and understood the scientific methods of conducting the parapsychology investigation aspects. The audio recordings, the debunking methods, the theories of how and why psychic energy exists within a house were all a familiar joy to me. And yet on the other hand, the way the mediums conducted their work were just as interesting. Their methods of “opening themselves up to the supernatural”, the use of spirit guides to help them during a séance, and their personal methods of communicating with spirits were treated with dignity and respect in Matheson’s hands while making their efforts easily readable and understandable for the audience.
Another favored memory was how Matheson caught me off guard with some of the narrative angles and therefore his unexpected ending. Honestly, the book could potentially have ended thirty or forty pages sooner and would’ve been an adequate story. But nay, Matheson is up for an endurance challenge and hit me with a completely unexpected plot twist and drew me right back in his boat of horror like a fish on a hook. Well played Mr. Matheson… well played!
After finishing the book I did a little more research into it and I’ve found it to be common mention amongst ghost story fans. I’ve even found it mentioned in a few of my “how to write horror” styled books as required reading for any hopeful horror writer, and quite frankly I couldn’t agree more. The simpler writing style of Matheson’s scribes while being able to switch from subtle one moment to shocking the next is a feat to witness. Some of these books mentioned that Matheson is considered to be one of the finest horror writers ever. This book offers strong evidence to support that claim in my eyes.
I enjoyed this book so much that I’m sorta reluctant to return it back to Craig next semester. Fortunately my mom mentioned that she’s got several copies of the book and will gladly give me one of them for my collection. I look forward to it as I may try to read this one again in the near future. I also plan to watch the before mentioned “Legend of Hell House” movie to complete my experience. I encourage any fan of haunted house stories to pick this one up and read it, or re-read right away it if you already have.
Well, that’s all the time we have for this episode of “Horror Masterpiece Theatre”, I am your classic horror host with the most, Steven Dawes. Until next time, remember to keep the lights on and never wander through a Haunted House alone.
Reviewed by Steven Dawes