16 September 2011

Richard Matheson's "Hell House"

The 1999 cover. Source
Or, the Ballad of Florence's Breasts.

 Richard Matheson is considered to be a legend in horror. If you want a good example why, see here and here. I hate to say it, but I don't think Hell House is up to par with Matheson's other works. It was a quick, breezy read with some freaky moments, but I think if you want the crème de la crème with Matheson, you're better off reading I Am Legend.

When I first started reading Hell House I was ready to dismiss it. Earlier I finished reading Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and when I started reading Hell House the territory seemed all too familiar. The Haunting operates under the premise of a scientific investigation into the paranormal. The participants are chosen based on their experiences with psychic phenomena in the hopes that they'll entice Hill House to show its true colors. Dr. Montague leads this investigation and tries to keep it as scientific and unbiased as possible, despite the strange occurrences in the house. Hell House operates under the premise of a scientific investigation into the paranormal, funded by the eccentric and wealthy Rolf Deutsch. The participants are chosen based on their experiences with psychic phenomena in the hopes they'll entice Hell House (the Belasco mansion) to show its true colors. Dr. Barrett leads this investigation and tries to keep it as scientific and unbiased as possible, despite the strange occurrences in the house. Oh, and there's a lot more sex and violence in this one.

Actually, I'm all for sex and violence. They're two primal parts of ourselves...and they work so well with horror, because fear is another primitive aspect of our being. However, sex and violence are only effective and shocking to a point. If it's too much of the same thing, you bet redundancy kills the thrill.

Which leads me to this post's subtitle: The Ballad of Florence's Breasts.

Not only will this increase my blog's status on Google and Bing for search engine hits (yay boobies!), but I made this subtitle to prove a point. You were a bit surprised to see this as a subheading, right? Well, the effect will be lost if I talk about Florence's breasts over and over and over again in this post. You'll be like, come on already, unless you have pictures I'm just not interested in Florence's breasts anymore. 

This is what happened to me as a reader while I read Hell House. To Matheson's credit, he does give readers fair warning about the type of experiences his characters will have in the Belasco Mansion via the mansion's backstory. Emeric Belasco, who built and resided in the mansion, was an illegitimate child who hanged a cat at age five, sexually assaulted his sister before age ten, was sexually abused at a private school by a male teacher for a number of years...then when Belasco inherited his father's millions, he built his mansion, a place where he could exert control over others in a series of sexual, violent amusements (Matheson, 55-58). Basically, imagine a bunch of drunks killing each other and sleeping with each other simultaneously. Throw in circus sideshow performers, the Marquis de Sade, virgin sacrifices, gladiator arenas, a theatre, a ballroom, and an enormous sacrilegious/pornographic pseudo-Christian chapel and that's the Belasco Mansion.

I knew to expect some crazy stuff to happen to Dr. Barrett and his guests based on this history. And I knew to expect violence and a lot of sexual depravity in terms of haunting phenomenon. Although I didn't think a lot of it was that shocking (Maybe it was different in the 70s, when the book was written...). The problem is there was a lot of recurring imagery throughout the novel; a lot of moments where I thought, here we go again; a lot of familiar horror tropes. Oh, and then there's the matter of Florence's Breasts!

Florence Tanner is one of the psychics in the investigation of Hell House. She is also a pastor in addition to a spiritualist medium...but she also used to work in Hollywood as an actress so you know she's going to be the hottie of the story. Because she's sexually attractive and also happens to be religious, I expected the house to mess with her on both counts (since Belasco himself was big on profaning both)...and the way she met her end in the Chapel of Boner Jesus was fitting and completely expected.

And a whole lot of nasty things happened to Florence's Breasts! The mean ghosties of Belasco mansion just wouldn't leave them alone. Add to that various excuses for Florence to doff her top (Dr. Barrett and his wife Edith needed to get a good look at them...especially Edith) and Florence's Breasts have become a main character in the novel (although Edith's breasts have a time to shine as well).

FLORENCE'S BREASTS! p. 64, 72, 84, 85, 92, 120, 127, 128, 134, 139, 158, 217, 231, 241, 242.

If you read the same thing over and over again, it loses its power. Not just Florence's breasts, but the number of times the characters ran to her room after she screamed; the trope of a psycho kitty cat scratching and clawing at someone when something supernatural is afoot; the religious type versus the scientist type; the Deus Ex Machina/God Machine, (the Reversor here, although it thankfully doesn't quite work 100%); the Ghosts in the Ballroom; the Woman who fell in love with a Ghost and was tricked into sleeping with it; sleepwalking into bogs/moats/rivers/ponds; record players with old recorded messages; the séance/possession; blah blah blah. I realize that a lot of these old tropes were  a deliberate choice of Matheson's, because you can better manipulate your audience when you know your reader is expecting X,Y, and Z. I expected X,Y, and Z, but I also expected to see something a bit...newer, maybe? Different?

And a little less breasty.

Source:
Matheson, Richard. Hell House. New York: Tor, 1999. Print.