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.

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


  1. I think you're a little harsh, but yes, it doesn't seem to have aged well. You have to keep in mind that this is from 1971, the beginning of the horror novel, really. Think about it, how many horror novels can you name from before the 1970s? And those tropes, this was their first mass exposure. They were new then.

    But oh, those bruising bite marks on Florence's breasts.

  2. *snort...Boner Jesus...snicker*

    What Christopher said... You have to realize that the "tropes" we have now had to start somewhere. And this novel is (arguably) where. Sure, we've got Poe and Lovecraft and Blackwood, but keep in mind that Matheson was one of the first to truly be considered a mainstream horror writer. When this came out (which, incidentally, was the year I was born), no one had ever seen anything quite like it.

    However, your thoughts about Florences' breasts are right on. To be clear, I have nothing against boobs. In fact, I like them a great deal. But I also don't like hearing BOOB BOOB BOOBBOOBOOBOOBOOBOOBOOBOOB so much.

    Good post!


    You win the internet, lady.

    I don't have much to add to this because you articulated the same issues I had with the book. It simply hasn't aged well and it comes from a mentality I find juvenile.

    Keep bringing the funny!

  4. Funny and insightful post, Kristina. Having enjoyed I AM LEGEND and various Matheson short stories, I shared your disappointment in this book. Sure, I understand Chris's point about its historical position, but that doesn't excuse its overwhelming weaknesses in terms of character and storytelling... nor does it explain its boob-driven nature. On that note, it's hilarious and kind of impressive that you listed all the boob-reference pages. Well done!

  5. I love this post to pieces. The boob obsession did indeed get tiresome, and like Joe said, the fixation on sexual issues has really dated the book. Boobs certainly don't make up for the poor characterizations and the weak writing, as much as we all love them!

  6. The Haunting of Hill House sorta felt like the PG version to Hell House's solid R. The sexual nature wasn't off putting so much, just felt somewhat unnecessary at times. I got that Belasco was a bad, bad man within the first 100 pages. So pushing just how EVIIILLLLLL he was on us seemed a bit redundant at times. I loved how you tracked "breast sighthings". Brilliant! The breasts that launched a thousand references. Seriously! Loved your post, Kristina! Thanks :-)

  7. I think the tage boner Jesus will get more hits on Google! this was a much needed laugh. oddly enough just last week the Radio Host I produce and I were talking about how if a film is failing all you need to do is add breasts! hell we even made a show out of it. I guess I just never thought about breasts in anovel being there own leading player! got me laughing and dare I say intrigued? this will have to go on the list of must reads! and not just for the breasts who doesn't like a good haunted house tale!?

  8. "Think about it, how many horror novels can you name from before the 1970s?" Well, I suppose it depends how you define horror novel, but I'd start with Dracula (1897) and Frankenstein (1818) and go on from there. Before mass-market paperbacks, pulp magazines fulfilled the same function so I'd also list the entire run of Weird Tales (1923-54) and its down-market competitors where sex and violence were rife. A quick thumb through any 'weird menace' issue of Dime Mystery, Horror Stories or Terror Tales will quickly disabuse anybody of the notion that the general reading public hadn't seen extreme material before the 1970s.


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