You know you’re reading a great horror novel when you have to keep your eyes open in the shower — despite the shampoo stinging the hell out of them — so you can be sure there’s no rotting-corpse-ghost peeking in at you. Hell House by Richard Matheson is such a novel.
Billionaire Rudolph Deutsch is going to die, so he decides to pay a physicist and two spiritual mediums $100,000 each to prove whether or not life exists after death. He tells the team to spend a week in the Belasco house in Maine, a colossal mansion in a mist-shrouded valley that was the site of depravity, murder, and drug addiction in the 1920s spurred on by its maniacal owner Emeric Belasco. Previous teams have tried investigating the house, but all ended up either dead or mad before completing their investigations.
Dr. Lionel Bennett (accompanied by his wife Edith) is a physicist who goes to the house to prove that ghostly phenomena is nothing more than naturally occurring electromagnetic energy that all living humans emit. Spiritual medium Florence Tanner believes she can help the tortured souls imprisoned in the house to move on. And physical medium Benjamin Fischer, the only man to survive an investigation at Belasco house, accepts the assignment because he needs the money. But he knows Bennett and Tanner underestimate the evil that lives in the house, and he’s too afraid to “open” his psychic abilities to the house to aid the investigation.
The house slowly ratchets up the terror and physical assaults, culminating in grotesque visions and hauntings that challenge the sanity of each character.
Hell House is about as primal a novel as you can get. It’s simple in that it only has four characters and one setting, which makes for a quick read. But a simple story structure does not mean a simple story. The characters are complex, each with his/her own noble reasons for staying in the house, even when the hauntings turn brutal and repulsive. Their theories regarding who is doing the hauntings, and why, shift with each new clue they uncover.
Some of the hauntings and visions are gruesome and sexually explicit, but in an R-rated sort of way. If that’s not your cup of tea, then you might want to stay away from this book. But if that doesn’t bother you, and you want a genre-defining example of a haunted house tale, then you won’t be disappointed with the chilling Hell House.