Hell is for Women: A Review of Hell House by Richard Matheson

Hell House

Richard Matheson

hell house warner books


Oh, Richard…

I have read two Matheson books. This one was the first one I read a year or so ago, then I am Legend. I’ve seen pretty much every movie based on his books as well, but we’ll leave those to the screenwriters. In planning my critique of this book, I found myself comparing both the story and the writing style to The Haunting of Hill House and my distaste for Matheson’s need to explain the unexplainable with pseudoscientific nonsense that does nothing for the plot but distract.

I would like to first focus on Matheson’s writing style. As a graduate student writing my first novel, the “do’s and don’ts” of novel writing are frequently drilled into our heads. Matheson, presumably a successful and prolific novelist, breaks enough of them, that I can’t help but be annoyed. Maybe it’s a case of sour grapes or in this case little man syndrome, but I found myself frequently distracted by his head-hopping often occurring without warning in the middle of a chapter/subchapter. I highlighted the subchapter 2:19pm from the December 22,1970 chapter. In these seven pages, and without any warning we jump into and out of every character’s thoughts and emotions. It was bad enough to completely draw me out of the story. It happened a few times again, but by then, I was more frustrated with the telling of a story and not showing.

Compared to Jackson’s Hill House, there is a lot more action—making this novel a quicker read, no doubt, but the dread, the fear isn’t there. Why? Because we are told everything that happens. Jackson weaves elements into her writing that run like ghostly fingers up your spine, while Matheson throws a ball at you and says, “think fast”. Did anyone else notice how everything “seemed to” be happening? I wish I had counted the times someone seemed to see or seemed to feel or something seemed to move. Ugh. Not to mention the Edith saw, Edith felt, Fischer sat, Barrett ordered nonsense. I frequently felt as if Matheson wanted to take Jackson’s novel and “improve” it with more blatant sexuality/lesbianism, more evil action, and perhaps more depth to the characters? In my humble opinion, all he managed was a novelized and adult version of an episode of Scooby Doo.

And with that, let’s discuss the story itself. Filled with four characters emotionally strong enough to enter Hell House and live there for a week: The patriarch and impotent know-it-all of the group, Dr. Barrett, his lovely, sexually frustrated young wife Edith (yes…Edith…twenty years younger, supposedly attractive and her name is Edith), Florence Tanner—the also maybe young but if nothing else buxom former actress now medium, and the brooding but best in the world medium Ben Fischer. Wait, did I say emotionally strong? The thing is, Matheson, in his 1970’s male brain obviously felt that both women were there to be the victims of the house’s sexual depravity, to need constant saving and reassurance and the men, who actually did very little in the story were the heroes and at times victims of the women’s naivety.

Matheson played with these women like a cat with a mouse throughout the entire story. Sexualizing them in every way, writing them to be weakened by their ability to love and sympathize while the men could block that off and see everything clearly. Those poor closet lesbians/sexually frustrated, love starved women—always getting into trouble. I really hate that. As it is, Edith and Florence were the only two characters who actually did anything, the only two who braved the hell of the Belasco House. And they managed to do it with plump breasts and curvy hips. Now, that is something to talk about.

Alas, as pretty and sexy as they were, neither one could figure out the secret of Hell House or defeat it. Nope. It took the good doctor’s fancy science to weaken it a little and the world renowned medium to put it all together a la Fred from Scooby Doo and unmask the one and only culprit—old man Belasco! In his lead-lined room and his sawed-off shorty legs, he sat dead and waiting. And hey, you think Fischer was an amazing medium? How about a man who knew exactly how the afterlife works, who knew all about the scientific theories to come and how to thwart them. He knew how to kill himself in such a way that he would for sure come back to own that place as a ghost. It’s really too bad Belasco and Deutsch hadn’t met before their death’s, they could have hung out together and saved everyone the trouble.

I tried to overlook the sexism, I told myself the book is a product of its time. It was certainly fast paced with so much action, but I certainly never felt the dread I did in Jackson’s novel. This for me read more like a screenplay than a novel. But what really ruined it for me was the end. Just as in I Am Legend, Matheson feels the need to try to explain everything with some crazy pseudoscience. It’s the wrap up by Fischer with the tidy explanation that is truly so far-fetched it was hard to finish. I won’t give the ending away but honestly, I find it better to end a paranormal story by leaving it paranormal, leaving it open to the possibility that something is still lurking there, ready to get you. But, if you love wrapping it all up in a less than believable way and closing the book knowing that the evil has been vanquished, then by all means, enjoy.

I’ll just be over here, doing my girl thing, trying not to ruin it with my boobs and my need for romancing the ghost.


2 thoughts on “Hell is for Women: A Review of Hell House by Richard Matheson

  1. I have to completely agree with you in the sexualization of the female characters in the book. Frankly, I don’t buy the whole “product of its time” argument either. As I discuss in my review, Matheson continuously objectifies and belittles women as well as vilifies sexuality and, more specifically, homosexuality in his novel. This guy is clearly pushing a sexist and homophobic agenda. This novel wasn’t published in the 1800s (although many novels from that time are much less problematic). This book was published in 1971. This is long after the Stonewall uprising and second-wave feminism drew attention to issues of homophobia and sexism. I never felt any dread when reading this novel because I couldn’t empathize with these one-dimensional characters. I purchased I Am Legend and have been waiting to read it for ages, but after this read, I think I can live without it.


  2. Honestly, I got through the first chapter of I am Legend and then stopped. It was due to more pressing school work but that was over three years ago and I haven’t gotten the urge to finish it. And I love vampires, so that says a lot. I did watch the movie though…which was depressing. Anyways, I felt like that sexualization of the female characters too up too much of the storyline. Sex was everywhere and almost felt like a character itself. I completely agree that the ending could’ve been done better. If it’s a paranormal story, it doesn’t need a happy ending! Leave it keeping the reader guessing, scared for the next group of people who dare to enter the sexualized halls of Hell House.


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