In a posthumous tribute to Richard Matheson, bestselling writer Stephen
King pinpointed the significance of Matheson's work not in its terrifying
twists or imaginative flights, but rather in its everyday qualities. "He fired
my imagination," King explained, “by placing his horrors not in European
castles and Lovecraftian universes, but in American scenes I knew and
could relate to."

This deceptive realism was a calling card of
Matheson's vision of the horror story.  Again
and again, Matheson took the basic elements
of old myths and superstitions and inserted
them into our contemporary landscapes,
alongside the shopping malls and convenience
stores.  Other writers look for vampires in
Transylvania, but his
I Am Legend takes place
in the very same Los Angeles neighborhood
where I grew up.  In his screenplay for the 1972
The Night Stalker—which set the record for
the highest rating by a made-for-TV movie with
a stunning 54 share—a serial bloodsucker haunts
modern-day Las Vegas.  In the 1973 follow-up,
The Night Strangler, the vampire villain is now
on the loose in Seattle.  

Yet I suspect that Stephen King was probably thinking about Matheson's
Hell House when he made that comment about horror in familiar
American scenes.  King lives in Maine, where Matheson's novel is set.  
The novel’s time period could hardly have been more contemporary:  
Hell House takes place during Christmas week 1970, and the book
was published in 1971.  The action is presented in brief episodes, each
identified by the day, hour and minute.  In other words, if you come to
this book expecting a 'traditional' ghost story, you will be surprised—
and all the more frightened—to discover that the tradition is happening
right now.  

The home of Emeric Belasco, apparently deceased—he disappeared
in 1929, but no body was ever found—is known to the public at large
as "Hell House."  The Belasco mansion is the most famous haunted
house of modern times, but no one has entered the Maine residence
in decades.   More than a hundred different kinds of paranormal effects,
from apparitions to xenoglossy, have been documented within its walls.  
Two attempts to investigate the mysterious house, in 1931 and in 1940,
both ended disastrously.  Only one participant survived those visits,
with eight others coming to dismal fates, killed, committing suicide
or going insane.  

Matheson's novel starts thirty years after the last investigation of Hell
House came its calamitous conclusion.  A wealthy eccentric named
Rolf Deutsch has purchased the building from Belasco's heirs.  He
has enlisted the services of three experts in the paranormal, offering
them $100,000 each if they can discover whether souls survive after
death.   He is sending them to the Belasco mansion to find the answer,
but they are only allowed one week to complete their work.  

Each of the investigators has a different background and agenda.  
Florence Tanner is a medium and minister who routinely communicates
with spirits from the great beyond.  Or so she believes.  Dr. Lionel
Barrett is a skeptic and trained physicist, who claims that no ghosts
haunt the mansion, and that all of the mysterious happenings can be
explained through his scientific theories.  Benjamin Franklin Fischer
is the sole survivor of the last attempt to study the Belasco residence,
and though he was once considered an exceptional physical medium,
both his skills and self-confidence were shattered by his previous
experiences in the haunted house.  

Related Essays
The Scariest of Them All: A Tribute to Richard Matheson
What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson

In an ill-advised move, Dr. Barrett decides to bring his wife along for
the week.  Consider it a second honeymoon, with murderous polter-
geists in attendance.   Although Richard Mathson showed elsewhere
that he could combine fantasy and science fiction with heartfelt romance—see,
for example,
Bid Time Return (filmed as Somewhere in Time) and What
Dreams May Come for examples of this genre-bending—Hell House
is not one of those kind of books.  

Matheson shows his mastery of plot and pacing at every step of this
novel.  Unexpected events unfold on an almost hourly basis, and with
each passing day the circumstances get stranger and stranger.  Yet
Matheson somehow manages to present these paranormal phenomena
in such a way that his three investigators are reinforced in their own
biases and convictions, believing that the developments confirm each
one's conflicting interpretations of the nature of Hell House. Tanner
is convinced that she has contacted the spirit of Daniel Belasco, the
tormented son of the house’s owner.  Barrett is certain that Tanner is
deluded and that she is causing many of the phenomena herself,
although perhaps unwittingly.  Fischer is confirmed in his view that
this house is too dangerous to mess with, and that he ought to do as
little as possible to aggravate the forces at play within its walls.

Matters come to a head when Barrett attempts to counter the power
of the Belasco mansion with the electromagnetic emanations of a
machine he has invented.  You can call him the first Ghostbuster, if
you will—but a Ghostbuster who doesn't believe in ghosts.  He is
convinced that he can defuse Hell House with science, and in the
process prove that no spirits haunt the premises.  But, as it turns out,
Hell House has some tricks left to play that neither Barrett, nor his
companions could possibly have anticipated.

The end result is a novel that combines the atmospherics of a gothic
horror story with the intensity of a modern-day thriller or action movie.  
Stephen King was not far off base when he declared that "Hell House
is the scariest haunted house novel ever written.  It looms over the rest
the way the mountains loom over the foothills.”  I won’t go quite so far,
but even while I acknowledge the contributions of other horror writers
who have tried their hands at such stories—King himself among them
—I give Matheson the nod as the author who did more than anyone to
bring horror into the digital age and show that it had lost none of its power
to terrify with the passing years.  Even as a host of other genres, such
as westerns and swashbucklers, have fallen on hard times, horror is
bigger than ever.  Those who want to understand why—or perhaps learn
how to write a gripping horror novel themselves—could do a lot worse
than turning first to this now classic work.  

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.  He is currently
working on his ninth book,
Love Songs: A Secret History, which will be
published by Oxford University Press.

This article was published on June 27, 2013

Hell House
by Richard Matheson

Reviewed by Ted Gioia
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Time's Arrow

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Like Water for Chocolate

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The Wanderer

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Magic for Beginners

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Doctor Faustus

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100 Years of Solitude

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Hell House

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What Dreams May Come

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The Road

Miéville, China
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A Canticle for Leibowitz

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Dangerous Laughter

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Cloud Atlas

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The Color of Magic

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Red Mars

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Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

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Store of the Worlds

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