Role-playing reviews

Reviews related to role-playing games, with a focus on Gods & Monsters, and a bit of superhero gaming.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Hell House

Jerry Stratton, August 24, 2012

I almost gave up on finding Hell House as a book. I wanted to get it in mass-market paperback size so that I could carry it with me; the Legend of Hell House movie didn’t make me think it was going to be up to the level of something I’d make time to read at home. Finally, my girlfriend tracked down a copy this year and gave it to me for my birthday!

I’m not going to say much about the book specifically; it’s one you’ll want to read to get the surprises from. There are definitely surprises if you’ve seen the movie: it’s very different, especially toward the end.

The “be-metered metal box” makes a bit more sense in the book, and in fact how it works plays a major part in the ending.

This is still a variation on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It’s the same basic story: parapsychology researcher enters a notoriously-haunted house with a team of psychics. In this case, however, the psychics were not chosen by him, and he would have preferred to bring in psychics he’s more familiar with. But a rich, dying man has chosen his team—and him—and is calling the shots.

He wants proof of life after death, because he’s going to die.

None of the team particularly respect each other’s talents; they each tend to disbelieve the other. But, while Matheson tells the story from everyone’s perspective, shifting from the scientist to the psychics to the scientist’s wife and back, the scientist’s perspective is privileged. The chapter headings are dates and times, as they might be entered in a journal.

When they hold a séance, Barrett, the scientist, measures the medium’s pulse, her respiration, the temperature of the room, and four electrical contacts between the medium’s body parts and the table, to know if she’s trying sleight-of-hand. He has a pressurometer and a dynanometer and “a dark blue instrument” that measures electromagnetic radiation. Each of the devices automatically records its readings, but he also manually dictates their values regularly into a tape recorder.

I would not call this “one of the great novels of the occult” as the cover proclaims; but it is definitely a mirror of its times, when parapsychology was beginning to be taken seriously for a short period of time. Barrett could just as well have been my faculty advisor at Cornell, a physicist who went into psychology and then searched for ways to create measurable, replicable parapsychology experiments.

The interesting aspect to me is that the book (and the movie, which becomes more understandable having read the book) takes one of the tropes of science-fiction, the untested machine that saves the characters at the end, and twists it a bit, brings it a little more in tune with what’s really likely to happen. It’s an arrogance, and a profound misunderstanding, that measurements are theory; they’re not. Doctor Barrett understood his measurements precisely; but his theory was fatally flawed.

Beyond that I cannot go, ere the ending be told too soon. Buy the book.

In response to Horror Houses: What to do when your house hates you? These movies will help you relate.

  1. The Empty House ->