In this day and age, many haunted house stories seem to follow a formula. Take a team of physic researchers, drop them in a supposedly haunted house, and watch to see what happens. When Richard Matheson wrote his classic novel, Hell House, the formula was still relatively new. Another classic novelist, Shirley Jackson, wrote the basic original formula back in the fifties with The Haunting of Hill House.
Both books beg their characters to answer a question. Where does physic energy originate? In the Haunting of Hill House, the reader is never actually sure if the haunting is real or simply the figment of an overwrought imagination. In Hell House, the haunting is without a doubt real but the mystery of the haunting is whether the ghost is a dead person returned from the grave or whether the haunting is a form of energy emanating from the living.
In Hell House, a millionaire lures three physic researchers to the best known haunted house in the country. The millionaire is dying and is determined to know if there is life after death. Most members of previous research teams to inhabit the house didn’t make it out alive. The lead researcher on this newest team, Lionel Bennett, considers himself a scientist. Bennett’s intention is to prove without a doubt that people don’t come back from the dead. He believes physical manifestations of a haunting are simply the results of physic residue emitted by the living. He brings with him a machine to measure, test, and disperse the physic energy to “cure” a haunted house along with the dream of retiring as an established, successful scientist in the field.
Bennett and another member of the team, Florence Tanner, are at odds throughout the book as to the cause and cure for the house, the Belasco mansion, as it is otherwise known. Florence is a medium and doesn’t trust Bennett or his machine. In the meantime, Bennett doesn’t want Florence to spook anyone with her wacky ideas about ghost returned from the dead. The third member of the team has his own issues but decides to keep them to himself. Bennett’s wife, a normal sort of woman, or so we think, is also along for the ride.
What adds to the creepy flavor of the haunting is the history of the house and it’s owner. The Belasco mansion was built by a maniac who encouraged drugs and debauchery inside his home, some of which led to sadistic murders and even cannibalism. The history is scattered throughout the book and give plenty of reason for the house to be haunted. Matheson builds up some good, chilling scares in his novel. There is sexual violence and tension scattered through the book although considering what we see on TV these days, it doesn’t seem so bad.
If you enjoy reading the early classics in the genre and understanding where so many of the copycats come from, you may enjoy reading Hell House. It isn’t as scary and gruesome as today’s haunted house tales might be and it does reflect well on what a haunted house should be. The best haunted houses will prey on a character’s weakness and use their fears just like a predator of any other sort would do. As in The Haunting of Hill House, Hell House and its owner become characters in the book. And that makes for good reading.
I purchased my copy of Hell House from Amazon to read on my kindle.