For this month I was trying to find haunted house reads from the 20th century that had the gothic vibes. The Haunting of Hill House was the standard I was looking for, and I find it interesting that I ended up reading Hell House, a book heavily influenced by Hill House.
The line between homage and straight up ripping another book off is very thin. So I’ll just say that Hell House is dancing all over that line. There are some notably differences but I don’t think I’m off the mark by saying that Hell House is The Haunting of Hill House if all nuance and subtly was gutted out and replaced by sex and gore.
I know some like ‘horror for horror’s sake’, and while that’s not really for me, I don’t even know if that was Matheson’s purpose. Yes, there’s a lot of shocking and horrific imagery, but I think Matheson was trying to focus on sexual repression… and the dangers of it? I think? I don’t know, because the ending came abruptly without much resolution in themes or well, anything.
Our Dr. Montague and Eleanor replacements are Dr. Barrett and his wife Edith. Instead of trying to prove that the supernatural exists, like Dr. M, Barrett is actually trying to prove the opposite, that there is no afterlife and the supernatural is an extension of the medium (person trying to make connection with the other side).
Due to physical disability, Barrett is unable to have intercourse with his young wife, Edith. Now I know that doesn’t mean that they can’t have a satisfying sex life, but the way they treat each other leads me to believe that this marriage is sexless on all levels. Edith seems more like a caregiver that Barrett kinda likes. Due to a horrible traumatic event in Edith’s life she seems to be ok with this marriage set-up. Edith does have insecurities in the beginning of the book, but this stems more from the power dynamics in the marriage than being sexually frustrated.
These two meet Florence, a spiritual mental medium, and Fischer, a powerful medium who is the only sane person to ever escape Hell House. Florence is definitely a religious Theo and Fischer is like Luke, in that he is kinda just there until the end and finally does something.
The book even has its own Mr. and Mrs. Dudley!
As I mentioned earlier, Hell House’s haunting centers around sex and gore (this ain’t your momma’s haunted house!) and this is due to the history of Hell House’s creator, Belasco. Emeric Belasco was the worst human that ever humaned and he built Hell House to be the spot where ‘anything goes’. Any deviant act you can imagine, it all went down here.
After the first act, I was getting Hill House vibes but I still felt positive about the book, but then the hauntings started to happen. Hell House hates all four individuals, but there is such venom towards Edith and Florence it is palatable. Since the focus of these hauntings are sex based, not only are they assaulted repeatly, graphicly, and violently, the supernatural entity also degrades and humilities them at every turn.
Here’s the thing: shocking/disgusting images alone don’t make something scary. It’s just unpleasant and gross. These scenes have to have something substantial attached to them to give them weight. And at the core that is the main issue I had with Hell House, there is nothing of substance behind what’s happening.
Earlier on I described the relationship between Edith and her husband Barrett, because this is a major dynamic at play throughout the novel and one that Hell House exploits. Edith, being a deeply repressed person in this nightmare, there’s just so many arcs this character could’ve taken and it all went nowhere. Maybe she’s there because Matheson thinks it’s funny that this character would do wildly inappropriate sexual acts? Who knows, who cares! Cause her story means nothing by the end.
And then the end. *Sigh*
A couple times I almost put Hell House down, but I got to that ‘point of no return’ spot. Honestly, there was even a moment that I started to feel the ‘creepy goosebumps’ I’d been waiting for, and I thought, after everything, maybe, just maybe, we can at least end strong. The end is a confrontation with the supernatural force at play and… I started to laugh. So silly and really ridiculous.
Spoilers: You can just neg a ghost out of existence.
Hell House was high on my ‘to read’ list this year because I kept seeing it pop up on ‘scariest books ever’ lists and the concept compelled me. I was disappointed that I didn’t find this book scary, but I could forgive that if everything wasn’t executed so poorly.
I’m not against sex or gore in horror, but I think it needs to be handled so much better than this. I don’t care what year this book came out, either. I didn’t even talk that much about the other female character in the book, Florence, because I’m still too upset about what happened with her character. Reading sexual trauma after trauma after trauma was too much for me.
Hell House had potential to be a modern update on the old school spooky tales, but it’s all cheap flash, leaving behind all the complexities that make gothic literature so dang good. I know others love this book, and I don’t think I disliked it because I’m being prudish, but this is so far from my taste and what I love about horror