My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Stunningly atmospheric and genuinely unsettling take on the haunted house trope. Matheson’s strength lies in creating deep imagery with a minimum of verbiage, and he’s on best form here: his descriptions of Belasco House, the ‘Hell House’ of the title, are sparse and well-placed, giving us just enough detail to make each setting within the house an unnerving combination of gothic ruination and disarming domesticity; and likewise, the four protagonists and their demonic antagonists are the subject of sparing, perfectly-weighted details that leave plenty of room for the reader to fill in the gaps. And it’s this complicity which gives the book its power: by the time things turn, inevitably and brutally, for the worse, the characters belong as much to the reader as to the author.
As a writer, it’s impossible not to admire the perfect weighting Matheson gives to his narrative– the timing, the pace, the characterisation and sheer damn creepiness of the novel are masterful. As a reader, the book is both compelling and compulsive– like the very best thrillers, I was left simultaneously wanting to throw the book down so as not witness the fates of its characters and unable to let go of the pages in the slightest.
A slightly slow opening and somewhat perfunctory climax can be put down to the era in which the book is written, and a certain pompous sexism (and accompanying tendency to launch into explanatory monologues)on the part of the male characters, likewise, can be ascribed to both the period and the necessary setting up of their respective narrative conclusions. But this is a wonderfully unsettling book by a master author at the height of his powers, and is a thoroughly rewarding reading experience.