On “Hell House” and Descriptions

I recently finished Richard Matheson’s “Hell House.” As I draft my horror novel, I’m looking for the scariest books to use as references for how other authors describe scenes and create a frightening environment for readers.

“Hell House” came up on many “Scariest Books Ever Written” lists and I genuinely wanted a good scare. “Hell House” had great scares, but isn’t the scariest book I’ve ever read. I wonder if this is because it may be somewhat dated in terms of haunted house tales. Other reviews noted the violence was an issue for some, which I personally didn’t have an issue with – though I could have done without the sexual scenes. The suspense is what kept me engaged.

The scariest moment for me was a scene where one of the characters – Barrett – was taunted by something in a steam room. We never learn what the something is, which may be why the scene continues to stick with me.

Another notable and frightening element is the mystery and wondering if the horror was actually resolved and eliminated – perhaps more horrifying than the thing itself. Barrett sees a chair in the mirror’s reflection, sitting still when not a few days prior it rocked on its own (pg 263). What certainty do we have that it won’t rock again? Life is never that certain.

Will the chair rock again on its own? What was in the tarn? This great and inconceivable unknown may be Lovecraftian for some, but I love it (perhaps Cthulhu spawn).

Descriptions have been a particular challenge for me. As I improve this element of my writing, I’m curious if it’s acceptable to write “Something watched in the darkness,” or “Suddenly the creature rose from the mud” to create the appropriate reading experience.

In this first draft, I have a whole page describing the transition from jungle to swamp. What Matheson did was much simpler but also effective. “She stood with a mournful sigh and crossed the room. Entering the bathroom, she ran a glass of water” (pg 209). I would have gotten stuck noting her steps from the bed to the door, her opening the door, entering the bathroom, going to the sink, turning the faucet on…

I have much to learn. We can always do more with less.

To summarize, I don’t believe this was one of the scariest books ever, but it has its moments and is worth the read. Take the parts you enjoy and ignore the rest. This was a great learning experience in the craft. I also loved the last 10 pages. That’s exactly the type of ending I’m looking for.

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