Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hell House: Similarities in Characters but a Difference in Conclusions

While reading Hell House by Richard Matheson, it was tough not to draw comparisons between it and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, particularly when it comes to the characters of the stories.  There’s no doubt that Matheson took some of the traits and identities of Jackson’s characters and injected them into his own.  The most obvious one is probably the scientist who goes to the house in order to discover the truth behind the hauntings.  In Hell House, it’s Dr. Barret.  In Hill House (note the similarity in the name of the house in the titles, too), Dr. John Montague.  Both of their jobs are to unravel the source of the hauntings, and they both attempt to do it from the standpoint of a scientist: they believe that science, rather than supernatural or spirit-related phenomena, can explain it. 
In both books, there’s the character who has a direction connection to the house prior to the start of the story.  In Hell House, it’s Fischer, who is the sole survivor of the tragedies of the house in the past.  In Hill House, it’s Luke, whose aunt owns Hill House.
Eleanor from Hill House is also a little like Edith from Hell House.  They come from bitter mothers or at least a troubled family past.  Eleanor had to look after her mother throughout her life, and because of that felt she was denied having her own life, whereas Edith’s mother influenced her negatively as well, as is revealed on page 110 of Hell House: “Edith twisted on her back and glared up at the ceiling.  What’s the matter with me, anyway? she thought.  Just because my mother told me sex is evil and degrading, do I have to fear it all my wife?  My mother was a bitter woman, married to an alcoholic woman-chaser.”  Both of them have to deal with their similar family pasts at their respective haunted houses.
In Hell House, Florence is similar to two characters from Hill House.  By nature she believes strongly that spirits or supernatural phenomena are responsible for the hauntings of Hell House.  This is very similar to Dr. Montague’s wife in Hill House, Mrs. Montague.  Both have strong personalities in that they believe they are undeniably correct about the fact that the house is being haunted by spirits (of course, you could say that the scientists are equally stubborn in their beliefs, creating great tension in the stories).  Florence keeps trying to open up and communicate with the spirits of Hell House, particularly Belasco’s son, whereas, similarly, Mrs. Montague arrives at Hill House with a planchette, which is used to communicate directly (or at least somewhat directly) with spirits.
Florence is also like Eleanor from Hill House in that she “goes insane,” so to speak.  In Hill House, it eventually becomes apparent that Eleanor has lost her mind.  She’s walking around the house at night, hardly aware she’s doing it and not even knowing where she’s going.  She also hears voices in her head, etc.  The same can be said about Florence.  Because she is so open to the “spirits” of Hell house, she is constantly speaking with them (the other characters usually don’t have actual conversations with them), and eventually even becomes possessed by a spirit (Belasco).  While that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s lost her mind, she certainly has lost control of it, since Belasco takes it over and makes her do certain things that she wouldn’t normally do (such as attempting to have lesbian love with Edith).  To some degree all the characters become a bit possessed or at least influenced by Belasco and do certain things they’re not aware of, so there’s a little of Eleanor in everybody, but Florence by far gets the brunt of it.
This leads me to my last point: the differences in conclusions between the two books.  In Hill House, the reader never learns what actually happened to Eleanor.  Did she truly go mad or was there really a “ghost” or “spirit” that influenced her, etc.  In Hell House, the reader is given the exact reason for the hauntings: a corrupt, egotistical spirit with a Napoleonic Complex named Belasco is in charge of everything.  All the loose threads are wrapped up, and the reader is left satisfied.  At least, that’s how I felt.  I much prefer the ending to Hell House to Hill House, because I got what every story promises: a reason for everything.  I can sleep at night knowing what really happened at Hell House, but, sadly, I’ll never know the truth about Hill House.
Source: Matheson, Richard. Hell House. New York: Tor, 1999.


Scott A. Johnson said...

One thing I should point out... "Hill House" is not the original title. It's "The Haunting." Even "The Haunting of Hill House" came about as an afterthought, I believe.

Scott A. Johnson said...

The comparison, by the way, was exactly the reason I chose both stories. Glad you caught on to that. Thanks!

A said...

Great comparisons. I did find some similarities between the two as well, but I didn't put as much together as you tell us here. The character of Eleanor is thrown into the mix much more than I realized through my own reading of Hell House.

Tanya said...

Chris, as you know, I also drew comparisons between Hell House and Hill House. You mentioned in your comments to me that you did not remember the elderly caretakers in Hell House. That's probably because, unlike Hill House, they were never actually seen, only talked about. In fact, I believe it is Fischer who, at one point, is sitting at breakfast marvelling at the fact that the meals were always there on time yet he had never seen the caretakers.

I wanted to say that I liked the details that you drew out about the similarities between Eleanor and Edith. Even though in my blog, I only mentioned the similarities between Eleanor and Florence, I did notice the other as well. I did not think about the fact that they both came from horrible family lives, though. Good catch. I also think there was some similarity between Theo and Florence. Even though Florence is possessed by Belasco and is killed by him, I think she is the stronger of the two female characters, which makes her more like Theo in HIll House.

I also have to give you kudos for finding a connection between Fischer and Luke. I kept trying to figure out a connection but couldn't. Good job.