So these lesbians walk into this haunted house….

In reading Matheson’s Hell House for the first time, I was struck by a number of things. First, the overt sexual tension between the two female characters occupying the titular haunted mansion. Second, the psychological vulnerability of one woman versus the seeming self-assuredness of her counterpart. Third, the passage of a dozen years and the release of the film adaptation of The Valley of the Dolls and the subsequent Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Make no mistake, Matheson ripped-off Shirley Jackson, but it feels like an X-rated parody and little more.

The title of the blog post may offend, but the lesbian aspects of this story weren’t mere undertones–they formed an integral part of the plot. I don’t want to rant too much, but there’s a problem within genre fiction–specifically in the speculative trio–of introducing lesbian characters to cover the LGBTQIAA+ “requirement” and then they’re cast as fap fodder for teenaged boys. And that’s sort of what happened here–possibly for the first time ever.

Matheson wrote for film and television. By the time he penned Hell House (1971), Matheson’s career saw credits on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. He already had several film credits to his name and he’d just been tapped for an upcoming show called Night GalleryHell House reads like a novel written for screen adaptation, with enough extraneous parts and fusible characters (combinable roles) to suit almost any market from PG to X (inclusive.) It possesses something of the qualities of the aforementioned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a forbidden sensuality that simultaneously mocks as too tepid the motivating work (Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, in this case.)

It’s easy to notice the unflattering influences of Jackson on this work. It would be difficult to label this homage in any sense of the word, but I don’t think Matheson intended malice. He was simply ham-fisted in his commercialized treatment of the more subtle original.

That said, let’s consider what Matheson does differently.

First, Matheson gets hung-up on his world building. He distinguishes between two types of clairvoyant or medium–one type is “mental”, the other “physical”–and brings this up repeatedly throughout the book. As his “mental medium” emits a teleplasm–being an alternate name for what is more commonly understood as ectoplasm–and becomes a “physical medium,” the change signifies some disturbing shift in the prevailing worldview of professional parapsychologists and mediums in Matheson’s universe. Why the shift is important, why it shouldn’t be allowed to happen, and what ramifications it’ll have on the discipline go unaddressed–but we know we’re standing in the presence not only of the unknown, but of the mind-blowingly unknown. I mean, this thing is breaking rules we didn’t even know about. How scary is THAT?

Second, Matheson’s characters never grow. They never learn from their ordeals. There was an old Eddie Murphy skit detailing the difference between white people and black people in late 20th century America. Murphy observed that when the house in a horror movie whispers, “Get out” black people have the good sense to take it at its word and get out. White people insist a new coat of paint and some window treatments and that noise is gone tomorrow.

While that routine probably wouldn’t fly in today’s humorless void, it raises an interesting point–characters in horror films tend to do stupid, stupid things. Like the commercial on TV right now featuring a group of young people running from a serial killer: in their haste to do the smart thing, they overlook a running car and opt to hide in a shed behind a row of rusty chainsaws.

A Clever Commercial

Matheson’s stock physicist builds the stock machine based on the stock science of his day. He is the least open-minded in the room, and only partially correct in his understanding of Hell House. Yet despite evidence contradicting his “theories” early on, he achieves partial success. Everyone else cleaves to their pet theories and quirks throughout the novel and nothing really induces understanding until half the party is dead and we’re in the final dozen or so pages.

Third, Matheson introduces a Crowleyan / Faustian character in the guise of the elder Belasco who, hidden in his lead-lined sanctum sanctorum is the story’s arcanum arcanorum. And let me be blunt–I’m not impressed with the lead-lined chamber. Lead is the metal of Saturn, which is death, but not necessarily impervious to all forms of radiation. I think I would have felt better with the inner chapel being a geometrically diabolic chamber–the topological equivalent of the mist-filled chapel perilous from Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni–sealed off from the material world through non-material means. Give me feng shui over mere metallurgy any day–especially if you can’t be bothered to do better than mere lead lining.

So the work is dated. Not exactly Matheson at his best. Nowhere near I Am Legend.

10 thoughts on “So these lesbians walk into this haunted house….

  1. Victor, LOVED this post. I have to learn to get better and be more analytical in my own versus what I think to be forced criticism. But we’ve talked extensively on your skill to point out lesbian undertones in almost EVERYTHING. Lol. What I really enjoyed here is how on point you were with your take on it. This is a stock story. It felt like Hill House but dialed up to an 11 on a 10-meter scale. The characters are all stereotypes in some way, and I also wish there was more character development which, as you said, never comes until the last 12 pages or so.
    There is a lot of world building but hardly any explanation into the rules of Matheson’s world, or where the lines should be drawn. How far is too far for him? I also got really annoyed with how run-of-the-mill the characters acted. I never mentioned it in my own post, but how many chances did they have to leave? How many? Ben’s character, who’d been there before, should’ve known better and get at least Florence out of the house. Dr. Barrett, after getting attacked in the sauna, should have taken his cue to at least get his wife out. And Florence should have been taken away to a doctor after getting attacked the first time. At the very least, Edith should have left when the people came to deliver food in the morning. It made no sense that they never once had a feeling…maybe we should take Florence to the hospital to check on all these gnarly, infected wounds?!??!
    I mean, I did enjoy the story. For better or worse. But did not come without obvious flaws. Great post. Make me want to do a better job for my own in the future!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, make no mistake–my analytics shouldn’t be touted, they’re pretty much all I’ve got. My own writing requires extensive development, so I serve as critic. Those who can’t do, teach–those who aren’t allowed to teach, write snarky critical blogs where they go all teenaged-angsty-Derrida-wannabe on the works of those who actually CAN do.

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    2. And the thing about character development is that it all happens at the end–and the end is somewhat satisfying–so I’d wager my eyeteeth that this was written for adaptation into a screenplay. It really has that screenplay/formulaic feel.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. kristinsuzy

    I want to learn to write titles like Victor writes titles.

    Okay, wait, I’ve got some questions. You said Matheson’s characters never grow, and I’m not sure I agree. Fischer/Luke/whatshisface went from just riding along to collect the money, as inactive as he could get away with being, fearful of using his power and became a hero who has several chances to get out, but sticks around to defeat Belasco. And Edith goes from being an emotional wreck when she’s away from Barrett to being almost nonchalant about going on after his death, though that seemed less like growth and more like Matheson forgot to give that character an emotional affect at that point. Florence and Barrett, yeah you’re right about them. Probably no growth there except for the dying-moment realization that they were wrong. And let that be a lesson to them: if you stagnate, you die. They should’ve known. Darwin told us only those who adapt make it, which may be Matheson’s moral-of-the-story, eh?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I felt Fischer’s sudden transformation a bit forced. Honestly, it felt like Matheson remembered he had this other character to work with and was like, “Oh, yeah! Fischer.” And that dictated the final chapters. His sudden development felt like one of those moments in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ where Geordi and Data save the ship with some technobabble and the one non-exploding console aboard the Enterprise.

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  3. Kristin Molnar

    I agree that this book has a screenplay feel. I didn’t catch that when I was reading it because I was too caught up in the gratuitous assaults on the female characters. But it makes sense. There is almost no character development until the very end and half the characters are dead. The end explanation for the haunting and horrors had that quick summation feel you get at the end of a movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the attacks on the women were grossly physical when they should have been more psychological. I felt that that gratuitous violence was atrocious, too–the mental assault should have been more pronounced, less emotional, less erotic. Edith’s temptation to drink was the sort of attack that appeals to me as a reader–in her mind, challenging reality, playing with fate.

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  4. I have to say, Viktor, nobody ferrets out those “lesbian overtones” like you do! I really didn’t get that with Hell House (unlike with Hill House), but I respect your ferreting abilities.
    I also thought you were a little tough on Matheson – here he is, trying to write about sex and perversion and you’re HARPING about “character development”! In any event, Matheson DID end up writing the Hell House screenplay for the original movie, and then left the bulk of the “character development” in the hands of the actors, where it probably belongs.

    Liked by 1 person

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