By Richard Matheson
Viking 1971/TOR 1999
Reviewed by Brian James Lewis
Stephen King has taught us many things. One of the most important is to honor and respect those that have come before you. Richard Matheson is one writer well deserving of that treatment. His short fiction was the bedrock for many an episode of The Twilight Zone and many of his books have been made into movies. The reason being the power of Matheson’s prose, along with its amazing timelessness. Yeah, some of the things, like this book for example, have exact dates written in as part of the story because we need to know that. It is very significant that the story ends on Christmas Day. But enough of that. I’m sure that I don’t have to explain Richard Matheson’s greatness to anyone. Let’s take a walk into Hell House.
The book starts with Dr. Lionel Barrett accepting a challenge from a tabloid magazine magnate Rudolph Deutsch to prove that The Belasco mansion, aka Hell House is really haunted. If he can do this, he stands to make one hundred thousand dollars (in 1971 this would be a vast fortune) in cash. But like any challenge of this sort, there are conditions. Barrett will be accompanied by two mediums. One of which is Florence Tanner who has very strong spiritual ties and runs a church. The other is a man named Benjamin Fischer, who is the sole survivor of a previous attempt to cleanse Hell House over 30 years ago. Fischer’s credibility is questionable, but as someone who was able to survive all the horror and depravity of the place before, he is very valuable.
Since I am writing a short review of this book, I’m going to whizz past a lot of the specifics with the intention of showing the core plan. The band of four people (Dr. Barrett’s wife comes along to assist the doctor with his physical ailments.) do enter the Belasco mansion and it more than lives up to its title. The place is creepy and nasty, surrounded by a foul smelling moat, and the former owner has left a recording of his voice to greet his guests. At first, just small phenomena occur. Things don’t feel right, bad spiritual energy, and ghostly visitors arrive. But once the evil spirit who controls the house figures out each challenge and weakness of the visitors, it sets about attacking those weaknesses. Until it literally breaks through.
The most intriguing of these is Dr. Barrett himself, who keeps trying to explain the powers of the house in terms of magnetic forces, air pressure, and temperature. Everything has an exact and scientific reason for happening, he claims. He even goes so far as to build a machine to reverse these energies and cleanse the house of evil. It works-for a very short time. Then the Reversor reverses with horrible consequences. Even as the doctor tries to shout his reason at it, the thing explodes with the negative energy build up, and he goes to a grotesque death. Science is great as far as it goes, but being a non-believer of spiritual forces is as dangerous as sitting on a crate full of dynamite.
Everyone in the house is hurt in numerous ways. There are possessions, visions, attacks by invisible forces that cause a lot of physical damage, and Benjamin Fischer is told to go outside and drown himself in the tarn. He almost succeeds, but Ethel Barrett arrives just in time to grab him. Even Deutsch, the originator of the contract, accidentally kills himself with pain pills. Not a great loss to the world, but it means that the people fighting the evil of Emerick Belasco will never get any monetary compensation for their sacrifices. This turns the fight into good against evil instead of a money making venture or a triumph for science. Together, the two people who did not believe in themselves are the ones to beat Belasco.
A couple of asides. Hell House is cleaned out on Christmas, the day that marks the birth of Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Which is a strong push for a spiritual victory. But Fischer realizes that Dr. Barrett was also right because the chamber that Emerick Belasco hid his body in was lined with lead. This meant that Belasco knew somehow that the radiation from the Reversor would damage his powers. I guess the meaning here is that there is more than one way to fight evil and some fights require all of them.