Hell House by Richard Matheson (1970): Matheson’s great ghost story pays homage to Shirley Jackson’s earlier, great haunted-house novel, The Haunting of Hill House, in many of its attributes. As in Jackson’s novel, Hell House gives us a quartet of psychic investigators led by an academic and weighed down by personal issues who’ve been brought together to stay in an extremely haunted house for several days.
Matheson’s novel focuses on the always fuzzy world of “psychic research” far more than Jackson’s did. The psychosexual issues are much more overt. And unlike Hill House, where the haunting seemed to be a matter of a Bad Place rather than individual Bad Ghosts, Hell House appears to be the domain of the ghost of Emeric Belasco. Matheson loosely bases Belasco on Aleister Crowley, black magician and self-proclaimed “wickedest man in the world.” Belaso is much wickeder: his remote Maine mansion was the site of mass murder, suicide, and worse. But when the authorities finally broke into the mansion in the 1920’s, Belasco was nowhere to be found among the dead.
Hell House is set in 1970. Two previous attempts to probe the mysteries of Hell House, the last in 1940, ended in the deaths or institutionalization of all those involved but one. And that one, a then-16-year-old boy judged to be one of the greatest psychics ever, is along for this expedition. Why? Because a dying millionaire is paying him and the others $100,000 each to try to figure out from the evidence of Hell House whether the human soul survives death.
As with his great, rational vampire novel I am Legend, Matheson herein sails the edge between the supernatural and the scientific. The physics professor who leads the expedition believes that ghosts are a product of human minds interacting with a charged psychic environment left behind by traumatic events in a specific location. There is no life after death except as an amorphous energy field subject to the fears and hopes of the living. The academic’s wife isn’t so sure. And the two psychics know that there’s something more than that going on. But what?
Matheson doesn’t write ‘long.’ Hell House is fairly brief and to-the-point, and its structure is as much mystery novel as horror novel. But the horrors are quite potent, and the characters sympathetically drawn even as they wrestle with their fears and their failings. Highly recommended.