HELL HOUSE by Richard Matheson

Sometimes the simplest things work best. Richard Matheson's Hell House is a haunted house story that's relatively quick, pretty straightforward, and extremely scary.

Rolf Deutsch, a dying old rich man, wants to find out about "survival" -- life after death -- so he hires people to investigate. They are sent to the Belasco House, "the Mount Everest of haunted houses," which was the site of unspeakable depravities under its owner Emeric Belasco. After his death there were two investigations into the house, and all but one investigator wound up dead or insane in the place nicknamed "Hell House." Deutsch bough the Belasco House and he wants a definitive answer about life or death. And he wants the answer within a week.

The investigators are a nice cross-section of paranormal investigators. Dr. Lionel Barrett is a scientist convinced that the paranormal is explainable by scientific means -- and he believes his machine, the Reversor, can remove the supernatural from the house. Sister Florence Tanner is a church leader and spiritualist who believes that the house can be cleansed with prayer and love. Benjamin Fischer is the only survivor of an early investigation into the Belasco House; he returns cynical, angry, and convinced his psychic strength is enough to conquer Hell House. And then there's Edith Barrett, Dr. Barrett's wife, who brings a series of fears and issues unknown to everyone.

Time is omnipresent in Hell House: Each section is a day in the week- December 18 through 24 -- and each section is a time of day followed by what one or several of the characters are doing. Everything happens in a linear path, giving the impression the reader is in the house, as much a part of things as the characters. Matheson creates a terrific atmosphere, both in the evils of the Belasco House and of tensions between the investigators, each of whom is skeptical of the others. Matheson also has plenty of horror in this novel, but it's presented gradually and mysteriously, not with sudden monsters and creatures.

Hell House is a terrific horror story. There are no elaborate gimmicks or unnecessary gore. Instead the reader has a tale of horrors and a scientific investigation into something all the characters think they can conquer but really don't fully know. Hell House may appear deceptively simple, but it works very well indeed.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

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