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 Gallery. Hell 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.
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.