In a posthumous tribute to Richard Matheson, bestselling writer Stephen King pinpointed the significance of Matheson's work not in its terrifying twists or imaginative flights, but rather in its everyday qualities. "He fired my imagination," King explained, “by placing his horrors not in European castles and Lovecraftian universes, but in American scenes I knew and could relate to."
This deceptive realism was a calling card of Matheson's vision of the horror story. Again and again, Matheson took the basic elements of old myths and superstitions and inserted them into our contemporary landscapes, alongside the shopping malls and convenience stores. Other writers look for vampires in Transylvania, but his I Am Legend takes place in the very same Los Angeles neighborhood where I grew up. In his screenplay for the 1972 film The Night Stalker—which set the record for the highest rating by a made-for-TV movie with a stunning 54 share—a serial bloodsucker haunts modern-day Las Vegas. In the 1973 follow-up, The Night Strangler, the vampire villain is now on the loose in Seattle.
Yet I suspect that Stephen King was probably thinking about Matheson's novel Hell House when he made that comment about horror in familiar American scenes. King lives in Maine, where Matheson's novel is set. The novel’s time period could hardly have been more contemporary: Hell House takes place during Christmas week 1970, and the book was published in 1971. The action is presented in brief episodes, each identified by the day, hour and minute. In other words, if you come to this book expecting a 'traditional' ghost story, you will be surprised— and all the more frightened—to discover that the tradition is happening right now.
The home of Emeric Belasco, apparently deceased—he disappeared in 1929, but no body was ever found—is known to the public at large as "Hell House." The Belasco mansion is the most famous haunted house of modern times, but no one has entered the Maine residence in decades. More than a hundred different kinds of paranormal effects, from apparitions to xenoglossy, have been documented within its walls. Two attempts to investigate the mysterious house, in 1931 and in 1940, both ended disastrously. Only one participant survived those visits, with eight others coming to dismal fates, killed, committing suicide or going insane.
Matheson's novel starts thirty years after the last investigation of Hell House came its calamitous conclusion. A wealthy eccentric named Rolf Deutsch has purchased the building from Belasco's heirs. He has enlisted the services of three experts in the paranormal, offering them $100,000 each if they can discover whether souls survive after death. He is sending them to the Belasco mansion to find the answer, but they are only allowed one week to complete their work.
Each of the investigators has a different background and agenda. Florence Tanner is a medium and minister who routinely communicates with spirits from the great beyond. Or so she believes. Dr. Lionel Barrett is a skeptic and trained physicist, who claims that no ghosts haunt the mansion, and that all of the mysterious happenings can be explained through his scientific theories. Benjamin Franklin Fischer is the sole survivor of the last attempt to study the Belasco residence, and though he was once considered an exceptional physical medium, both his skills and self-confidence were shattered by his previous experiences in the haunted house.
In an ill-advised move, Dr. Barrett decides to bring his wife along for the week. Consider it a second honeymoon, with murderous polter- geists in attendance. Although Richard Mathson showed elsewhere that he could combine fantasy and science fiction with heartfelt romance—see, for example, Bid Time Return (filmed as Somewhere in Time) and What Dreams May Come for examples of this genre-bending—Hell House is not one of those kind of books.
Matheson shows his mastery of plot and pacing at every step of this novel. Unexpected events unfold on an almost hourly basis, and with each passing day the circumstances get stranger and stranger. Yet Matheson somehow manages to present these paranormal phenomena in such a way that his three investigators are reinforced in their own biases and convictions, believing that the developments confirm each one's conflicting interpretations of the nature of Hell House. Tanner is convinced that she has contacted the spirit of Daniel Belasco, the tormented son of the house’s owner. Barrett is certain that Tanner is deluded and that she is causing many of the phenomena herself, although perhaps unwittingly. Fischer is confirmed in his view that this house is too dangerous to mess with, and that he ought to do as little as possible to aggravate the forces at play within its walls.
Matters come to a head when Barrett attempts to counter the power of the Belasco mansion with the electromagnetic emanations of a machine he has invented. You can call him the first Ghostbuster, if you will—but a Ghostbuster who doesn't believe in ghosts. He is convinced that he can defuse Hell House with science, and in the process prove that no spirits haunt the premises. But, as it turns out, Hell House has some tricks left to play that neither Barrett, nor his companions could possibly have anticipated.
The end result is a novel that combines the atmospherics of a gothic horror story with the intensity of a modern-day thriller or action movie. Stephen King was not far off base when he declared that "Hell House is the scariest haunted house novel ever written. It looms over the rest the way the mountains loom over the foothills.” I won’t go quite so far, but even while I acknowledge the contributions of other horror writers who have tried their hands at such stories—King himself among them —I give Matheson the nod as the author who did more than anyone to bring horror into the digital age and show that it had lost none of its power to terrify with the passing years. Even as a host of other genres, such as westerns and swashbucklers, have fallen on hard times, horror is bigger than ever. Those who want to understand why—or perhaps learn how to write a gripping horror novel themselves—could do a lot worse than turning first to this now classic work.
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is currently working on his ninth book, Love Songs: A Secret History, which will be published by Oxford University Press.