Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Richard Matheson and Hell House

Last week I wrote about Dark Shadows, Star Trek, Richard Matheson's novel Hell House, and how fantasists use the material vs. the non-material in their storylines. In House of Dark Shadows (1970), Dan Curtis used a materialist explanation for Barnabas Collins' vampirism. That was a neat and acceptable solution to the problem of the supernatural in an age of the merely natural. In Star Wars (1977), George Lucas implied that the Force, which holds the universe together, is non-material, and if not spiritual than at least mystical. We accepted that explanation without a word of reservation. Then, in the second Star Wars trilogy (1999-2005), Lucas reversed himself and explained the Force again as a merely material phenomenon. Lucas is a notorious tinkerer. (I'm not sure any of his tinkering has made an improvement on the original.) But we had already accepted his original explanation for the Force. We didn't need another explanation, especially a materialistic explanation. That's why I used the word disheartening in my comments the other day. I also used the word cynical. What I meant was that Lucas turned off his imagination and swallowed the materialist air of our times. He became a follower instead of a leader, that is, a leader in matters of taste, which is one of the roles of the artist. I suppose he thought he was being clever and scientific. His inspiration was obviously the existence of mitochondrial DNA within our own cells. But when he resorted to a high school biology textbook, he turned his back on the sense of awe and wonder we feel when we ponder the mysteries of the universe.

Material vs. non-material. Are they irreconcilable opposites? In his book Hell House (1970), Richard Matheson attempted an answer and created two characters to represent the material and the non-material approach to hauntings. Dr. Lionel Barrett, a scientist, believes that hauntings are merely physical or biological in nature. Florence Tanner, a spiritualist and medium, believes they are non-material and spiritual. The two become part of a four-person crew investigating the haunting at Hell House, "the Mount Everest of haunted houses." Barrett and Florence are immediately set against each other, mostly because of Barrett's dismissal of the supernatural. If you're planning to read the book, you might not want to read any further, although I won't give very much away. As it turns out, Matheson split the difference: the haunting of Hell House is both a material and a non-material phenomenon. A machine and a medium are both necessary to bring the haunting to an end.

In my research for the entry on Richard Matheson as an author for Weird Tales, I learned that he was a believer in paranormal or parapsychological phenomena. His knowledge of those fields comes through with ringing authenticity in Hell House. His catalogue of "Observed Psychic Phenomena at the Belasco House [Hell House]" runs for nearly a full page of dense type. The list is almost comic in its excess. (It reminds me of Major King Kong reading the contents of his survival kit in Dr. Strangelove.) If you know what half those words mean, you deserve a medal. Knowing that Matheson was a believer made me a little biased in my reading of Hell House. As readers, we willingly suspend our disbelief. Maybe the writer has an equal obligation to suspend his belief. Towards the end of the book, Matheson seems to speak through Dr. Barrett when Barrett calls parapsychology "science" and proceeds on a brief discourse in its defense.

I won't quibble. I enjoyed Hell House, despite its sensationalism and its attempts to shock the reader. (Like The Exorcist, Hell House uses sex as a shocker and sexual perversity or depravity as a representation of evil. Maybe there isn't any quicker way to get there, but I can think of more real and palpable evils. Any history of the twentieth century is full of examples.) Matheson's explanation of hauntings as simultaneously material and non-material phenomena is a perfectly acceptable one. In the end, we have two acceptable explanations--House of Dark Shadows and Hell House--and one unacceptable explanation--George Lucas' latter-day Star Wars.

Text copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley

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