I got a few pages into Hell House by Richard Matheson and realized a strange thing: this is one of the few books I have never seen on screen. The Legend of Hell House is one movie I’ve managed to overlook through the years, and after reading the novel, I’ll be seeking out the film version, if for no other reason than to see if the characters and tone are the same as the novel.
Even without that reference, I dare say it would be hard to live up to the images and the creep factor of the novel. The sinister backdrop for the story was effective. The house was down a narrow road that stank, and was covered in fog. The lights don’t work when the visitors first arrive, but there is a record player playing a personal message from the long dead Belasco. Within the first few pages, I was already unnerved by the old man Deutsch and his bony cavities (Matheson 10). His character remained simply an umbrella under which the others stood throughout the entire story, but the fact that he seemed to think that his money could buy him something special as he stood at the end of his life was intriguing. This notion foreshadowed Belasco’s own studies and the root to the haunting of his house.
Dr. Barrett was a more fleshed out character, and though he represented the stereotypical scientist who believed his science was the only answer to all life’s questions, I admired how Matheson layered him with a disability and a May December marriage to Edith Barrett. These details made him more realistic, portraying him as a man who was confident in his work and his science but less so in his ability to protect and satisfy his younger wife. His disagreements with Florence Tanner regarding science and her spiritualism had a ring of truth, however, it was hard to believe that anyone could remain that staunch in their beliefs after the things that started to happen in the house.
We did not learn much about Edith Barrett until after she arrived at Hell House and began to see shadows in the steam room and in the medium cabinet. Then she displays more of her personality as we see how afraid she is of being alone and of having overtly sexual thoughts, especially those of a lesbian slant. She also figures out pretty quickly that a little brandy makes everything seem alright for a bit.
The medium Florence Tanner was another well rounded character, having made her way from what she called “…influences no greater than similar influences that exist in any line of work” (Matheson 147) in Hollywood to the sanctified pulpit. It was very telling that she believed “It isn’t the business that matters, but the corruptibility of those who enter it” (Matheson 147). Although she was referring to the wickedness of Hollywood, this statement seemed to show that because she was so receptive to the influences of the Belasco House, that she was able to be corrupted, as was Edith Barrett, to an extent.
Benjamin Fischer was the one character I would have liked to have seen more of. His position of having survived Hell House before made a curious backdrop where I think so much could have been done. Instead, he seemed the flattest of the characters, only fending off the sexual advances of Edith and the requests from Florence to help her to cleanse the energy in the house. Ben only realized on page 181 that he had been doing absolutely nothing since he’d arrived at the house. Even after the realization, he doesn’t do much until his almost comic confrontation of Belasco at the end.
Besides the characters, the most noticeable thing was the tone of overt sexism in the book. The ladies were referred to by their first names, yet the men by their last. Dr. Barrett seemed infallible, even when faced with his impotence in his marriage. Ben seemed indifferent to the sexual advances of Edith and Florence, and didn’t react in any noticeable way. However, both Edith and Florence were victimized in sexual manners: Florence was raped by a ghost and Edith was forced to face her deepest fear of having lesbian tendencies.
It was also quite noticeable how accommodating the women were in the book. It is Florence who suggests that she and Dr. Barrett work together on figuring out the phenomena in the house, even when Dr. Barrett would have none of it. Ben was unyielding in using his own psychic powers to aid Florence until after she died. And Edith continued to offer apologies and behave contritely after her drunken sexual advances on Ben, even while Dr. Barrett closed the door on the matter until after they got home.
Despite this, Hell House was a good study in ghost stories. Not only did it bring forth the fight between science and spiritualism and suggest that both views are necessary in studying paranormal events, but it also portrayed what a strong will may be able to do in the face of death.
Matheson, Richard. Hell House. New York: Tor, 1999. Print.