While I have been remiss in watching some Halloween-inspired horror the past few days (life and theatre, what can I say?), I decided I needed to flex my atrophying reader muscles. Even though a selection of (potentially) great books I have not read yet sit on my shelves -- including the most recent Stephen King and Joe Hill novels and several Dracula-inspired fictions -- since it feels eons have passed since I last picked up a book much less read one, I decided to start out 'easy' with one of my favorite horror novels: Hell House.
I say 'favorite horror novels' yet honestly Hell House ranks among my favorite books ever. Though I haven't read all of Matheson's fiction, I have read a very sizable amount and, for me, this novel is his most thought-out, has the best characterization, possesses a brilliant blend of horror and black humour, and is perhaps the best American ghost story yet written. Yes, stories like 'The Fall of the House of Usher' are incredible and terrifying (and anyone who hasn't experienced the brilliance of early-American Gothic masterpieces like The Turn of the Screw and Wieland needs to read them immediately), but what causes Hell House to shine (other than spectacular writing, plot and pace) is the connection it creates between classic supernatural stories and modern (for the '70s) science. It sets out with a main character coming to scientifically explain paranormal phenomena and an extension of the human subconscious which, in some people, is capable of causing every form of residual haunting, poltergeist activity, possession, etc. It makes a damn good case for it, too... that is until the house and its 'residents' decide to come out and play, and play they do.
While the novel relies on some traditional horror and ghost story conventions, and is easily paralleled to The Haunting of Hill House, it stands on its own as a mastery of the genre. Matheson crafts a disturbing, horrifying atmosphere very early in the story to establish that it's not going to be a fun trip. What works so well is he weaves the horror through the tale in a way that only explicitly describes gore a handful of times. This lends itself to allowing the reader's imagination and early description of the House's history and recorded phenomena to fuel the real horror without over-saturating descriptions of violence, sex and psychological fuckery.
With the characters, each one is well-rounded and slightly unhinged in their own way, but not to the extent that they become unbelievable -- they are intelligent, progressive individuals who, although they have very differing views on what paranormal activities are and their causes, have sound reasoning and experience related to their own opinions and actions. Until the house starts screwing with all those opinions, of course.
My final assessment of the triumph in the novel's construction lies in the character of Fischer. He enters the house as the sole survivor of a previous examination of the house and shuts himself down in an attempt to keep the House from affecting him -- of course in doing that he allows the House access to the others with disastrous consequences. Yet you cannot hate him for protecting himself due to his ultimate redemption and his sardonic, cautious attitude toward a place which historically destroys anyone who enters it.
I have a deep, burning desire for this novel to become a film as a true American ghost story (unfortunately in the original movie adaptation in moving the story to England it sucked out that aspect). However, time has shown that unless Matheson writes the screenplay himself, his stories always gets completely screwed...