“Hell House” by Richard Matheson: it was hornier than I expected

Like the orgy parties at Belasco Manor, a quick and dirty review of the 1971 novel with the most randy ghosts I’ve ever read about.

The 1970’s novel “Hell House” by Richard Matheson, focuses on four unfortunate bastards people; Dr. Lionel Barrett, a physicist with a focus on parapsychology; Edith, his wife; Florence Tanner, a past-Hollywood actress turned medium and Benjamin Fischer, a medium who was the sole survivor of another attempt to unlock the secrets of the house, owned by the late, enigmatic millionaire Emerie Belasco. Their directive by dying billionaire William Reinhard Deutsch is to discover, in a week’s time, concrete, solid evidence of life after death. If they do so, each party receives a sum of a hundred thousand dollars.

Of course, the Belasco manor doesn’t earn the name ‘Hell House’ for nothing; in their week stay, the four encounter horrors the likes of which they’ve never experienced before, and only a short amount of time to preserve their sanity from Hell House.

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from this vintage haunted house horror, but nonstop, unashamed horniness definitely wasn’t it.

For background: Emerie Belasco, son of a gun-mogul (haha) and a Hollywood actress, inherits millions of dollars after his father’s passing; he uses this money to install unnecessary luxuries like an Olympic sized swimming pool, an indoor theater, and even a chapel–all inside his house. He gets in good with the elite of the early 1900s, and this is when things start to take a dark turn. Belasco lowers their inhibitions with lavish parties and offering them free rein of the house.

The one rule of the Belasco manor? There are no rules. Emerie starts the equivalent of a sex-cult, with wild orgies occurring in the main hall of his house, and his guests’ stay ends with cannibalism, murder, and twenty-seven dead bodies.

There’s a lot of weird, rapey elements that shocked me, as I haven’t seen it mentioned in the few reviews of the book that I’ve read. At the most, it’s mentioned but played off as if the sexual content isn’t all that important to the novel. But, in fact, it’s very important to the novel; it is the foundation in which the haunting of Hell House is built on. Without sexual debauchery, the house, and Belasco by extension, would cease to exist.

The Mistreatment of Florence Tanner

Barett recants that Belasco’s favorite past-time was “breaking women”, which is evident in the treatment of the two female characters. There’s a lot of sexual content, both explicit and implied, that haunts the pages of Hell House, all centering exclusively around Florence, and Edith. Florence, because she is a medium so open to the malevolent presence in the house, seems to take the brunt of the assault. A running subplot in the book revolves around Florence Tanner’s ceaseless infatuation on the discovery of Emerie Belasco’s supposed son Daniel and making sure that his spirit departs the haunted manor. During this time, Florence forms a connection with the dead Daniel, cultivating into a sexual experience where Florence promises to let Daniel into her body. While in coitus, Daniel turns into a bloated corpse and rapes her, afterward possessing her body and forcing her to commit terrible acts, like attempting to rape Edith. At the end of her life, Florence is tricked into entering Belasco’s indoor chapel, a source of great pain for her psychically. She is penetrated by the wooden phallus of a Jesus statue and dies. The group finds her body, and Matheson writes, in far too much detail, the state of her vagina post-death.

“His [Fischer’s] gaze shifted to her [Florence’s] genitals. They were caked in blood, the outer tissues shredded….He [Lionel Barrett] saw that Fischer had turned to look at the crucifix lying nearby and did the same. Seeing the blood on its wooden phallus, he felt his stomach walls contract.”

…Ew.

A bit about Edith’s sexuality

Edith Barrett, the wife of Lionel Barrett, is an interesting case. First off, she’s a whopping twenty years younger than her husband, who seems more like her grandfather and she his assistant than a husband and wife coupling.

Edith, at a young age, was sexually assaulted by her father, which, presumably, leads her into a relationship with Lionel because he is safe, he is secure, and his disability (from Polio at a young age) will not lead him to attack and potentially overpower her.

There’s also a really interesting underlying thread of Edith seeking out non-sexual relationships with men because of her possible attraction to women. Early on into their stay at Hell House, Lionel wants to begin a spirit reading with renown medium, Florence Tanner. Beforehand, Edith is tasked with performing a full body search on Florence, to be sure that she isn’t wearing anything that could be considered ‘cheating’.

“The movement made her [Florence’s] breasts hitch, so their hardened nipples brushed against Edith’s sweater. Edith twitched back, watching the tresses of thick red hair as they rippled downward, spilling over Florence’s creamy shoulders. She’d never examined a woman so beautiful before.”

edithflorence.gif

Edith admires Florence’s beautiful body; the house uses her fear of homosexuality against her and forces Florence to assault Edith.

Hell House, of course, is a product of its time; it was written by a (presumably) straight man back in the 1970s, so I’m not shocked at the more problematic elements included in the book, including a “homosexual teacher” who molests a young Belasco (because that’s all gay people do I guess, is molest children), and the idea somewhat teased at that Edith’s attraction to women and sexual repression stems from her rape at the hands of her father.

As haunted house antics are in full swing, there’s a passage where Edith gets absolutely torn up off some Whiskey she found in the house. The alcohol, Edith’s sexual repression and the powerful, horny influence of the house itself all cultivate into Edith drunkenly seeking out Benjamin Fischer, and demanding that he have sex with her. In another, before her husband is devoured by the house itself, Edith and Lionel find themselves in the steam room. In a pathetic attempt to have sex, Edith becomes furious when Lionel’s incontinence ruins the mood, and storms out.

Again, to an extent, I realize that the whole foundation of the Hell House has been built on sexual debauchery, and the point of these scenes are for the house (and Belasco) to corrupt the group and split them apart, but I wish there was some kind of resolution involving Edith. These things happen, and at the final showdown she is accosted with a ghostly visage of her dead dad and his enormous penis, and that’s it.

Final Thoughts

The surviving members of the group eventually realize how to defeat the omnipotent, powerful Emerie Belasco, and that’s by calling him a short bastard a bunch of times until he crumbles into dust (think, the ending of It: Chapter 2, when the Loser’s Club call Pennywise ‘nothing more than a clown”). The mystery of Hell House resolved and equipped with evidence of life after death, Edith and Fischer leave the manor. Unfortunately, the billionaire that offered them money to stay in Hill House dies of a drug overdose, so they don’t even get to claim the hundred-thou. But, let’s hope Edith found herself a nice wife after her husband’s passing.

Overall: I’m glad I read this classic tale of a haunted house, and I’m especially glad that I don’t ever have to read it again. By no means do I consider myself puritanical in matters of sexuality, but I think the constant physical and mental assault of the female characters proved itself to be gratuitous and disgusting after a short while, especially in contrast to the male characters who were more or less left alone (meaning: not assaulted sexually). And I didn’t care at all for the rape of Florence at the hands of the crucifix with the wooden phallus, nor the stomach-churning detail of her ruined genitals afterward. The overly-specific details about Barrett’s science meeting spirituality didn’t appeal to me in the slightest, and the machine that he uses to supposedly get rid of the ghosts was convoluted, the ghost-antics were boring, and I’m so happy that the Belasco house has been exercised from its ghosts because I never have to go back to it ever again.

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