Monday, June 24, 2013

RIP Richard Matheson; in praise of Hell House

Note: the following piece has been edited and improved slightly since first posted.
I was thinking just this morning, while checking the obits page, that it was kind of pleasant that no one I particularly had investments in had died in the last while. I knew that it couldn't last long.

I cannot say I knew all his writing, but one of my favourite novels in any genre is Richard Matheson's Hell House. While offering what on the surface seems like a sexually-charged Gothic ghost story, it actually is - according to me, anyhow - a parable about the ways in which ego investments can foil ostensibly cooperative endeavours; or maybe a work of Nietzschean psychology, showing how different "Wills to Power" clash in the arena of belief. The plot goes like this: four people are given the challenge of spending time in a haunted house - "the Belasco house in Maine," we are told in ominous tones - where past investigations have ended in disaster, earning the house its other name. Two of the investigators - a crippled, skeptical male scientist seeking a rational, natural explanation for the horrors on hand, and an emotion-driven female psychic who needs to feel she can redeem the lost souls that she encounters - clash over what is happening, and are each driven by the other's maddening insistence on their own framework of interpretation into stubborn entrenchments and excess, determined to prove they are right. Along for the ride are a cynical former psychic who is the sole sane survivor of a previous expedition to Hell House - he's wonderfully played by Roddy McDowell in John Hough's film adaptation, The Legend of Hell House - and the wife of the scientist, who is supportive and kind and stays very much in her husband's shadow, until the house starts to work on her frustrated sexual needs...
I won't spoil the ending by describing how things go wrong - and I can't rightfully compare it to The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, since I've never read the book, which I gather from the film has similar elements - but the ways in which Hell House works its theme of ego, hinting at patterns and meanings, while remaining entirely character-driven, only very briefly getting overt at the climax - fascinated me as a kid: how simple the book is - a mere horror novel, a thriller, a piece of pulp - and yet how richly meaningful, how perfect! I discovered it in junior high school, before I knew what the word "subtext" even meant, and was so taken by the ways the drama between the characters hinted at a deeper meaning, and was so engaged by its more obvious theme, of conflict between New Agey and skeptical/ rationalistic interpretations of the world, that I read it four times through, end to end: I finished the book and started it again, immediately, taking it with me to class, reading it in my bed at night, and loving it more with each read. Never since have I even felt tempted to do that with a novel. The copy I had - bought at Haney Book and Novelty, a used paperback shop on the Dewdney, which later became Haney Books and Comics, then got bought out by a gamer geek, and now stands vacant - had the cover below; if I ever see this edition again, I'll buy it for its sheer sentimental value, even though it is neither a story of "demonic possession," nor a "novel of the occult," as is claimed (I think they were trying to cash in on the success of the The Exorcist with such copy):
Back then, I was reading mostly Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Bloch. None of those writers mean so much to me these days - though I occasionally revisit them as the mood strikes me. The thing that I love most about Hell House is that it holds up; I picked up a copy again a few years ago, almost on a nostalgic whim, and read it and found it just as compelling and entertaining. (I've read it again since). It stands as my favourite horror novel, and no doubt I will read it again someday).
As I say, I don't care about everything Richard Matheson wrote, however. Even I Am Legend fails to excite me much (though note that no one yet has done a faithful adaptation of that novel; since it does have a fairly unique and provocative ending, it deserves to be adapted properly at least once, eh?). I haven't read The Incredible Shrinking Man or Stir of Echoes or Duel - though I enjoyed the movies based on them. In fact, about the only other things I've actually read by Matheson are short stories - I used to like a fairly dark one called "The Distributor" a lot, which is sort of a concise, suburban distillation of the evilest of Jim Thompson. Oh, and of course Matheson wrote my favourite-ever Twilight Zone epîsode, "Nick of Time" (as well as many others, including the more famous "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet").

As I`ve said before, I don`t feel that mournful when someone makes it to a ripe old age after a momentously productive life. Richard Matheson is a case in point - an immensely prolific, highly creative writer who deserves to be much more widely read. Rather than waste time with sorrow, then, let me just urge you, if you haven`t done it - if you`re at all fond of horror fiction, or just like a great, rich work of pulp - read Hell House. It`s a lot of fun...

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