Book Review: Hell House by Richard Matheson

You know you’re reading a great horror novel when you have to keep your eyes open in the shower — despite the shampoo stinging the hell out of them — so you can be sure there’s no rotting-corpse-ghost peeking in at you. Hell House by Richard Matheson is such a novel.

Billionaire Rudolph Deutsch is going to die, so he decides to pay a physicist and two spiritual mediums $100,000 each to prove whether or not life exists after death. He tells the team to spend a week in the Belasco house in Maine, a colossal mansion in a mist-shrouded valley that was the site of depravity, murder, and drug addiction in the 1920s spurred on by its maniacal owner Emeric Belasco. Previous teams have tried investigating the house, but all ended up either dead or mad before completing their investigations.

Dr. Lionel Bennett (accompanied by his wife Edith) is a physicist who goes to the house to prove that ghostly phenomena is nothing more than naturally occurring electromagnetic energy that all living humans emit. Spiritual medium Florence Tanner believes she can help the tortured souls imprisoned in the house to move on. And physical medium Benjamin Fischer, the only man to survive an investigation at Belasco house, accepts the assignment because he needs the money. But he knows Bennett and Tanner underestimate the evil that lives in the house, and he’s too afraid to “open” his psychic abilities to the house to aid the investigation.

The house slowly ratchets up the terror and physical assaults, culminating in grotesque visions and hauntings that challenge the sanity of each character.

Hell House is about as primal a novel as you can get. It’s simple in that it only has four characters and one setting, which makes for a quick read. But a simple story structure does not mean a simple story. The characters are complex, each with his/her own noble reasons for staying in the house, even when the hauntings turn brutal and repulsive. Their theories regarding who is doing the hauntings, and why, shift with each new clue they uncover.

Some of the hauntings and visions are gruesome and sexually explicit, but in an R-rated sort of way. If that’s not your cup of tea, then you might want to stay away from this book. But if that doesn’t bother you, and you want a genre-defining example of a haunted house tale, then you won’t be disappointed with the chilling Hell House.

Book Review: The Furies of Calderon

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that my first Jim Butcher novel is not a Dresden Files book, but The Furies of Calderon, the first in his epic fantasy Codex Alera series. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but when you think Jim Butcher, you think Harry Dresden. So why start with Codex Alera?

Because I’m writing a Roman-themed sci-fi book and I was looking to do some shameless stealing. But that aside, I was also in the mood for a page-turning fantasy, and this one did not disappoint.

In The Furies of Calderon, the nation of Alera has a distinct Roman feel – its armies are organized into “legions,” its nobles have Latin names like Quintus and Atticus. But in this world, people can bond with the living furies of earth, fire, water, and metal, giving them magical abilities that keep the nation safe from the monsters and barbarians along Alera’s borders.

When a spy named Amara discovers a plot against Alera’s First Lord Quintus Sextus, she is ordered to the remote Calderon Valley to find out what the traitors are up to. She meets a 15-year-old boy named Tavi who does not have a fury, an odd occurrence among Alerans.  Amara and Tavi learn that traitorous lords within Alera are working with the monstrous barbarians to bring down the old and weak First Lord Sextus. It is up to Amara and Tavi to stop the coming invasion and bring proof to the First Lord of the conspiracy in his own court.

While the Roman elements weren’t as extensive as I hoped, the book overall was a very good read. The writing was entertaining and fast-paced, making the book feel much shorter than its 500+ pages. The final battle was a bit predictable, but satisfying nonetheless.

Most of the characters were finely drawn – Amara, the young spy with something to prove; Fidelias, the villain you could almost agree with. Unfortunately, the only character I couldn’t warm up to was the protagonist Tavi. He was certainly heroic and likeable, but in a way I’d seen before in many other epic fantasies.

Descriptions of the magic system seemed a little thin. I would’ve liked more information on how it worked, and how the furies feel about being bonded to humans. I assume Butcher saved that for later books, along with answers to many other questions.

Despite some nitpicks, The Furies of Calderon was the fun epic fantasy I was looking for, and a promising start to the Codex Alera.

Books in the Codex Alera:

2012: Disaster Porn

I finally saw 2012 on pay-per-view last week only because my wife was on call at the hospital that night and there was nothing on TV. My overall impression is it wasn’t a complete waste of 2 1/2 hours, but I’m glad I didn’t spend $10 to see it in a movie theater.

The first half-hour had me hooked. The main characters were were well drawn, though I think it was the quality of the actors portraying them. And the science behind the end of the world was plausible — as sci-fi stories go — for me to suspend disbelief enough to accept the coming apocalypse (although if you’re worried about the movie scenario, let real science calm your nerves).

But then the world ended, and that’s where things got silly. The main characters could only have so many earthquakes, lava, and crevasses literally chase them before the entire movie started to feel like a deus ex machina in reverse. And where were all the iPads? I mean, come on!

There’s no denying the special effects were spectacular, and that is what saved the movie for me. Yes, I like “disaster porn” — guilty as charged — because it brings me back to the disaster epics I loved to watch as a kid on Sunday afternoons (Crack in the World, When Worlds Collide, etc.).

And that’s pretty much the category I’d place 2012 — save it for a rainy Sunday afternoon. Or a night your spouse is working.