Thursday, February 14, 2013

Flaws and Females: The Ugly and The Beautiful Inside Hell House

Hell House took my mind all over the place: from the absurd, to the frightening, to the humorous. A few weeks ago, I discussed how The Haunting of Hill House could be seen as a YA novel, and it’s obvious that Hell House was inspired by Hill House, but any child-like qualities I mentioned for Jackson’s work were stripped from Matheson’s work. His book is definitely meant for adults, but the lack of sophistication left something to be desired from a story inspired by Hill House and written by Matheson. Still, there’s something to take away from Matheson’s techniques.

Hell House was written in the 70’s, and I think the female characters falter a bit because they illustrate an outdated, almost sexist view of women. As Florence and Edith are manipulated by the evil in the house, they lose their innocence, and in doing so, they become absurd caricatures of women. Their actions do not illustrate psychologically unstable women, but instead seem to point inwards and shout, “I am an unstable woman!” For instance when Edith says, “Suck them, you fairy bastard, or I’ll get myself a woman who will!” (171), she seems to be calling more attention to herself than actually demonstrating her loss with reality.

Regarding this flaw, it could be argued that Matheson was attempting different objectives with his novel than Jackson was with her book, so it’s unfair to compare the depths of their characters. Although I agree he had different objectives, none account for his faulty females. Jackson tackled the unreliable narrator with magnificent skill, and Matheson attempts to investigate the paranormal while letting it degrade the psyches of his characters. He does a similar supernatural investigation with pseudo science in I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come. The concept is fascinating that the supernatural can be explained with science, that it’s a little mysticism yet a little tangible. Still, the females come off as cheesy and artificial because they are merely mechanisms being utilized to establish Matheson’s perception of the afterlife and not fully-developed characters.

The women never became much deeper than they were in the start, and portions became laughable. Again, the women seemed dainty in the start, and at the end, they were still just sexual tools utilized by the author and by the men in the house. For instance, Florence’s possession seemed implausible, as if she was just a helpless romantic letting men take advantage of her. Also, the absurdity of Florence’s fate had me laughing when I should have been horrified.

These criticisms aren’t to say I disliked the book. On the contrary, I found it thought-provoking (although not in an ambiguous way such as The Haunting of Hill House), and portions of it were frightening. One of the most notable elements assisting the frights were the tales told within the story. Pages 54-61 of my copy specifically relate the cannibalistic orgies thrown at the house, and what readers get isn’t the terror of living through those parties, but the fear associated with the reactionary view of the present-day characters. Somehow, it’s more chilling to see stable individuals discuss and react to the horrendous events that took place in the house--their reactions set the stage for our reactions, and then set the scene for their own struggles within the house. This technique of build up through the use of backstory and character reactions happens again when Barrett discusses, with Edith, Fischer’s past. By setting Fischer up through Barret and Edith’s reactions, his history parallels that of the house. Also, by giving an impressed reaction from a skeptic, Fischer’s credibility is heightened, and readers then want to see him reach his true potential and fight the evil. Of course, in the end, he does.

The finale left me with the impression that if the first set of ghost hunters would have just called Belasco a bastard a half dozen times, the house would have been cleansed. This method for beating a great evil did not seem completely suitable. But there is an issue that arises when dealing with demons and spirits: the difficulty of finding a suitable way of defeating the monster without resorting to magic or improbable methods. I suppose, with the aid of Barret’s machine, Fischer’s tactic was as good as any. I was just left wanting something more.

Work Cited

Matheson, Richard. Hell House. New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1971. Print.