A TALE OF TWO HOUSES: HILL v HELL A dual review of The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House.

Let's start with the shameful admission. Well, two actually. The first is that I intended to write this review back in October. I listened to both audiobooks back to back so I could compare the two. I had every intention of writing this while they were both fresh in my mind. Unfortunately, October was a Hellaciously busy month and...well, you know how it is.

Unless you are absolutely, totally new here you know that I am a big horror fan. I love to scare and be scared. Much of my reading material comes from the horror genre. The bulk of my own writing falls there too. Movies? Of course.

As a self-proclaimed devotee of the genre, I feel that it is important to have a good working knowledge of the classics. As someone who hopes to publish frequently in the genre, I feel that is it equally important to know the roots of where horror has come from. I do not want to fall into the trap of thinking that all of history started at a certain point like those damned and deluded individuals who think that Stephanie Meyers invented the vampire and everything else they come across is a derivative of Twilight.

Naturally, I have tried to immerse myself in the writings of my predecessors. Last year, as part of a project for the GLAHW, I created a list of classics of the horror genre (which hopefully I will remember to add to the website so I can link to it). I will admit that I am not always a big fan of the haunted house story. However, I have read both Shirley Jackson's
The Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson's Hell House.

That shameful admission I mentioned? I can never keep the two straight in my mind.

It's not just that I get the two mixed up in a general sense like "which one has the big machine and which one has all the psychics?" There is also the point where if you put a scene in front of me I would be hard pressed to figure out which book it came from.

I should emphasize that I am speaking of the books here, not any cinematic adaptations which may have been based (loosely in some cases -- I am looking at you Catherine Zeta Jones versions).

I am sure that I am not alone in this. There are...


Let's make it official.

We've reached that portion of the map with the fanciful drawing of the multi-headed sea-serpent and the banner:


There, now that we have covered that.

There are many similarities between the two novels. I suppose to be fair to Jackson one must say that Matheson used many of the elements which appear in the earlier work (
Hill was published in 1959, Hell in 1971). In some ways it is the prototypical haunted house plot which we have seen in everything from the movies, to Stephen King's Rose Red2, to countless episodes of Scooby Doo. A group of people, among them paranormal investigators of one stripe or another, must spend a predetermined amount of time in a house which is rumored to be haunted by spirits, ghosts, demons, or which has soaked up the history of the evils which were done within its walls.

There are also similarities between someone the characters. The main investigators have very specific ideas as to how the investigations should be run. Their wives are super annoying (Mrs. Montague is a self-important, ignorant know it all and Edith Barrett is a timid, mouse of a character). Both stories rely on different types of mediumship as well as other investigative techiniques to explore the mysteries within the house in question.

There is one major difference between the two. It is on this difference that my opinions of the two rely. In other words, there is a reason I prefer one to the other.

The Haunting of Hill House is an older form of horror, I've read some critics that refer to it as terror rather than horror. Hill relies more on a building of a sense of dread. In this way it is more akin to something by Lovecraft or Blackwood than something one would find on a current bestseller list. Jackson does do a great job of building the tension in the first half of the story. The reader, especially the modern reader, may eventually become frustrated by the fact that NOTHING EVER HAPPENS!

Well, not nothing. There are spooky sounds. Theodora's clothing gets ruined. I have always like the way Jackson allows the reader to question what is going on. Are the thunderous footfalls really there or mass hysteria? If they are really there, why don't Mrs. Monatgue and her annoying friend hear them. Are the housekeepers closing the doors and making it nearly impossible to navigate the house or is the house itself working against the investigators? Are the various characters actually changing or is this simply the way Nell interprets them affected by her own nerouses? Is any of this happening or is Nell simply going mad?

That, my friends, is where Jackson loses me. Although the tension ramps up slowly and effectively, the way the characters respond to it is so annoying that I end up not giving a crap what happens to them (which is good since, for the most part, nothing does). At some point or another I want to give each of the characters a good whack against the head. Theodora might get an open hand. Mrs. Montague gets a hammer to the head. Nell I want to hit with my car.

Fortunately the house takes care of that for me.

The Haunting of Hill House is to me at least, reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood's The Damned. The terror arises from the setting, a mounting unease which eventually leads the characters to begin to doubt themselves and their own motivations. It may be interesting to note that the two books share a major criticism by modern readers, that nothing much "happens."

All of which may be an interesting topic to look into in a later blog.

By comparison, Matheson's
Hell House is action packed. There is a rich back story which comes out fairly early on. The house was the center of a bacchanalistic lifestyle. All manner of debauchery was not only performed, but encouraged. Feasts of gluttony, orgies, sado-masochistic lasciviousness4...

In short, the previous owner, Emeric Belasco, was just plain e-vil.

Hell House explores a number of interesting concepts. Is the house haunted by spirits, the ghosts of past revelers who can be expelled or exorcised? Have the acts performed in the house altered the very nature of the building so, like a giant battery, it has stored the energy given off by the previous sybaritic behavior and discharges this energy when people enter it? Whatever the case, can the house be cleansed?

A team of investigators seeks to explore the mysteries of Hell House. They are financed by William Reinhardt Deutsch, a dying millionaire who wants to know if there is life after death. The team itself is an interesting mix of philosophical backgrounds, scientist v psychic (although the scientist relies of psychic phenomena to prove his success). The house, much like the one on the Hill, begins to act on the individuals. In each case, the characters' weaknesses are exploited. Unlike the Jackson's house, there are some very physical and horrific manifestations. People die.

As noted earlier, I much prefer Matheson's house to Jackson's. It is not simply the "stuff happens" excuse, however. I prefer the characters in Matheson's work. Yes, there is sexual exploration in both books, yes there are characters who are too timid or afraid to act in both books. Yes, the characters occasionally act in ways that just makes the reader want to shout at them. While I wanted to take a crowbar to the cast of
The Haunting of Hill House, I was much more forgiving for the visitors of Hell House. Their actions seemed to flow from their flaws and made sense.

For the record,
Hell House wins in the adaptation war as well. The Legend of Hell House with Roddy MacDowell is an entertaining film and a faithful adaptation of the novel. This makes sense as Matheson adapted the novel for the screen.
Regardless of my preference for Matheson over Jackson, both are important works of horror fiction. If one is seeking to understand the roots of modern horror, one must be familiar with both books. Both do an excellent job of illustrating how people react to the possibly paranormal activities around them. Many authors and screenwriters have riffed on the ideas put forth in the novels. How many times have you seen a group of people who have to spend a night or a weekend in a haunted house? How many times have you seen the break down of a once cohesive group due to mental status changes brought about by the isolation, the spooky happenings, etc? How many times have you seen the science v psychic war played out?

If you want to see it done well, I urge you to pick up both
The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House.

Postscript. I took a break from writing this entry to have dinner and watch one of the many movies which I recorded on my DVR. The choice for the evening was Episode 50. In a nutshell, a wealthy, wicked man is dying and he hires two teams of investigators (one pseudoscientific and the other faith based) to spend a weekend in a haunted former asylum.

Thanks for making my point.

1Do NOT get me started on this. At least not here. That's for a different rant.

2Which started its life as an adaptation of
The Haunting of Hill House which was abandoned due to differences between King and slated director Steven Spielberg.

3What? I said spoilers.

4 ... and five John Denver Christmas Specials.