Richard Matheson | Bantam Books | 1971 | 247 pages
Richard Matheson’s classic novel sends a group of intrepid psychic investigators, each with their own individual agendas and psychological baggage, to conquer the “The Mount Everest of haunted houses.”
A dying millionaire offers to pay Dr. Lionel Barrett one hundred thousand dollars to answer the eternal question, “Is there life after death?” Given only a single week to accomplish this task, the focus of the investigation is revealed to be the Belasco House in Maine, a notorious haunted house with a fatal history of failed parapsychological investigations. Along with his wife, Edith, Lionel’s team includes Florence Tanner, a spiritual medium, and Benjamin Franklin Fischer, a former psychic wunderkind—and only survivor of an attempt at unearthing the mysteries of Hell House thirty years prior.
Manifestations of the supernatural appear almost immediately after the team sequesters themselves in Hell House. Cold spots appear, furniture moves of its own accord, and Florence senses a deadly presence in the chapel. Later, she channels an unknown spirit during a séance with a more direct warning, “Get out of this house before I kill you all.”
Wringing a maximum of tension from what is essentially a four-character chamber piece, the incidents grow in frequency and intensity as the week’s deadline approaches. Although the group seemingly all acknowledge the source of the haunting as Belasco’s history of dark rituals and murderous debauchery at his mansion, they differ profoundly in their interpretation. Florence is convinced the ultimate source of the paranormal events is a spiritual haunting, with the ghost of Belasco himself perhaps commanding a group of other spirits trapped in the house. Lionel, a skeptic of mediums, seeks to prove a scientific basis for all supernatural events. He argues for the existence of a residual electromagnetic energy source, built up from a history of human actions, as the wellspring for paranormal occurrences, and aims to drain this energy field with a machine of his own creation.
Hell House itself serves as something of a fifth character. A brooding, oppressive atmosphere oozes from the gothic hulk, its rooms and corridors setting the stage for potential horrors. Pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo abounds, mixed along with ectoplasmic extrusions and spiritual possession, but the overall sense of dread is palpable. The arrival of Lionel’s machine telegraphs a final showdown with the controlling powers of the house.
However, Hell House provides a visceral ride, not just a malicious atmosphere. The characters are all beaten and abused over the course of the week, bruised and bloodied by the malicious forces at play. Glasses shatter, cutlery attacks, and sleepwalkers are directed to drown in the stagnant pond on the estate grounds. A violation from a wooden phallus protruding from an unholy, life-size crucifix in the chapel takes the abuse to a nearly absurd degree.
The constant attacks ultimately threaten to reduce the characters to broken dolls, tossed around inside a shaking, malevolent dollhouse.