Book excerpt

Hell House

Richard Matheson

Tor/Forge

DECEMBER 18, 1970
 
 
3:17 P.M.
 
It had been raining hard since five o'clock that morning. Brontean weather, Dr. Barrett thought. He repressed a smile. He felt rather like a character in some latter-day Gothic romance. The driving rain, the cold, the two-hour ride from Manhattan in one of Deutsch's long black leather-upholstered limousines. The interminable wait in this corridor while disconcerted-looking men and women hurried in and out of Deutsch's bedroom, glancing at him occasionally.
He drew his watch from its vest pocket and raised the lid. He'd been here more than an hour now. What did Deutsch want of him? Something to do with parapsychology, most likely. The old man's chain of newspapers and magazines were forever printing articles on the subject. "Return from the Grave" "The Girl Who Wouldn't Die"--always sensational, rarely factual.
Wincing at the effort, Dr. Barrett lifted his right leg over his left. He was a tall, slightly overweight man in his middle fifties, his thinning blond hair unchanged in color, though his trimmed beard showed traces of white. He sat erect on the straight-back chair, staring at the door to Deutsch's bedroom. Edith must be getting restless downstairs. He was sorry she'd come. Still, he'd had no way of knowing it would take this long.
* * *
The door to Deutsch's bedroom opened, and his male secretary, Hanley, came out. "Doctor," he said.
Barrett reached for his cane and, standing, limped across the hallway, stopping in front of the shorter man. He waited while the secretary leaned in through the doorway and announced, "Doctor Barrett, sir." Then he stepped past Hanley, entering the room. The secretary closed the door behind him.
The darkly paneled bedroom was immense. Sanctum of the monarch, Barrett thought as he moved across the rug. Stopping by the massive bed, he looked at the old man sitting in it. Rolf Rudolph Deutsch was eighty-seven, bald, and skeletal, his dark eyes peering out from bony cavities. Barrett smiled. "Good afternoon." Intriguing that this wasted creature ruled an empire, he was thinking.
"You're crippled." Deutsch's voice was rasping. "No one told me that."
"I beg your pardon?" Barrett had stiffened.
"Never mind." Deutsch cut him off. "It's not that vital, I suppose. My people have recommended you. They say you're one of the five best in your field." He drew in laboring breath. "Your fee will be one hundred thousand dollars."
Barrett started.
"Your assignment is to establish the facts."
"Regarding what?" asked Barrett.
Deutsch seemed hesitant about replying, as though he felt it was beneath him. Finally he said, "Survival."
"You want me--?"
"--to tell me if it's factual or not."
Barrett's heart sank. That amount of money would make all the difference in the world to him. Still, how could he in conscience accept it on such grounds?
"It isn't lies I want," Deutsch told him. "I'll buy the answer, either way. So long as it's definitive."
Barrett felt a roil of despair. "How can I convince you, either way?" He was compelled to say it.
"By giving me facts," Deutsch answered irritably.
"Where am I to find them? I'm a physicist. In the twenty years I've studied parapsychology, I've yet to--"
"If they exist," Deutsch interrupted, "you'll find them in the only place on earth I know of where survival has yet to be refuted. The Belasco house in Maine."
"Hell House?"
Something glittered in the old man's eyes.
"Hell House," he said.
* * *
Barrett felt a tingling of excitement. "I thought Belasco's heirs had it sealed off after what happened--"
"That was thirty years ago." Deutsch cut him off again. "They need the money now; I've bought the place. Can you be there by Monday?"
Barrett hesitated, then, seeing Deutsch begin to frown, nodded once. "Yes." He couldn't let this chance go by.
"There'll be two others with you," Deutsch said.
"May I ask who--?"
"Florence Tanner and Benjamin Franklin Fischer."
Barrett tried not to show the disappointment he felt. An over-emotive Spiritualist medium, and the lone survivor of the 1940 debacle? He wondered if he dared object. He had his own group of sensitives and didn't see how Florence Tanner or Fischer could be of any help to him. Fischer had shown incredible abilities as a boy, but after his breakdown had obviously lost his gift, been caught in fraud a number of times, finally disappearing from the field entirely. He listened, half-attentive, as Deutsch told him that Florence Tanner would fly north with him, while Fischer would meet them in Maine.
The old man noted his expression. "Don't worry, you'll be in charge," he said; "Tanner's only going because my people tell me she's a first-class medium--"
"But a mental medium," said Barrett.
"--and I want that line of approach employed, as well as yours," Deutsch went on, as though Barrett hadn't spoken. "Fischer's presence is obvious."
Barrett nodded. There was no way out of it, he saw. He'd have to bring up one of his own people after the project was under way. "As to costs--" he started.
The old man waved him off. "Take that up with Hanley. You have unlimited funds."
"And time?"
"That you don't have," Deutsch replied. "I want the answer in a week."
Barrett looked appalled.
"Take it or leave it!" the old man snapped, sudden, naked rage in his expression. Barrett knew he had to accede or lose the opportunity--and there was a chance if he could get his machine constructed in time.
He nodded once. "A week," he said.
 
3:50 P.M.
 
Anything else?" asked Hanley.
Barrett reviewed the items in his mind again. A list of all phenomena observed in the Belasco house. Restoration of its electrical system. Installation of telephone service. The swimming pool and steam room made available to him. Barrett had ignored the small man's frown at the fourth item. A daily swim and steam bath were mandatory for him.
"One more item," he said. He tried to sound casual but felt that his excitement showed. "I need a machine. I have the blueprints for it at my apartment."
"How soon will you need it?" Hanley asked.
"As soon as possible."
"Is it large?"
Twelve years, Barrett thought. "Quite large," he said.
"That's it?"
"All I can think of at the moment. I haven't mentioned living facilities, of course."
"Enough rooms have been renovated for your use. A couple from Caribou Falls will prepare and deliver your meals." Hanley seemed about to smile. "They've refused to sleep in the house."
Barrett stood. "It's just as well. They'd only be in the way."
Hanley walked him toward the library door. Before they reached it, it was opened sharply by a stout man, who glared at Barrett. Although he was forty years younger and a hundred pounds heavier, William Reinhardt Deutsch bore an unmistakable resemblance to his father.
He shut the door. "I'm warning you right now," he said, "I'm going to block this thing."
Barrett stared at him.
"The truth," Deutsch said. "This is a waste of time, isn't it? Put it in writing, and I'll make you out a check for a thousand dollars right now."
Barrett tightened. "I'm afraid--"
"There's no such thing as the supernatural, is there?" Deutsch's neck was reddening.
"Correct," said Barrett. Deutsch began to smile in triumph. "The word is 'supernormal.' Nature cannot be transcen--"
"What the hell's the difference?" interrupted Deutsch. "It's superstition, all of it!"
"I'm sorry, but it isn't." Barrett started past him. "Now, if you'll excuse me."
Deutsch caught his arm. "Now, look, you better drop this thing. I'll see you never get that money--"
Barrett pulled his arm free. "Do what you will," he said. "I'll proceed until I hear otherwise from your father."
He closed the door and started down the corridor. In light of present knowledge, his mind addressed Deutsch, anyone who chooses to refer to psychic phenomena as superstition simply isn't aware of what's going on in the world. The documentation is immense--
Barrett stopped and leaned against the wall. His leg was starting to ache again. For the first time, he allowed himself to recognize what a strain on his condition it might be to spend a week in the Belasco house.
What if it was really as bad as the two accounts claimed it was?
 
4:37 P.M.
 
The Rolls-Royce sped along the highway toward Manhattan.
"That's an awful lot of money." Edith still sounded incredulous.
"Not to him," said Barrett. "Especially when you consider that what he's paying for is an assurance of immortality."
"But he must know that you don't believe--"
"I'm sure he does," Barrett interrupted. He didn't want to consider the possibility that Deutsch hadn't been told. "He's not the sort of man who goes into anything without being totally informed."
"But a hundred thousand dollars."
Barrett smiled. "I can scarcely believe it myself," he said. "If I were like my mother, I'd undoubtedly consider this a miracle from God. The two things I've failed to accomplish both supplied at once--an opportunity to prove my theory, and provision for our later years. Really, I could ask no more."
Edith returned his smile. "I'm happy for you, Lionel," she said.
"Thank you, my dear." He patted her hand.
"Monday afternoon, though." Edith looked concerned. "That doesn't give us too much time."
Barrett said, "I'm wondering if I shouldn't go alone on this one."
She stared at him.
"Well, not alone, of course," he said. "There are the two others."
"What about your meals?"
"They'll be provided. All I'll have to do is work."
"I've always helped you, though," she said.
"I know. It's just that--"
"What?"
He hesitated. "I'd rather you weren't along this time, that's all."
"Why, Lionel?" She looked uneasy when he didn't answer. "Is it me?"
"Of course not." Barrett's smile was quick, distracted. "It's the house."
"Isn't it just another so-called haunted house?" she asked, using his phrase.
"I'm afraid it isn't," he admitted. "It's the Mount Everest of haunted houses, you might say. There were two attempts to investigate it, one in 1931, the other in 1940. Both were disasters. Eight people involved in those attempts were killed, committed suicide, or went insane. Only one survived, and I have no idea how sound he is--Benjamin Fischer, one of the two who'll be with me.
"It's not that I fear the ultimate effect of the house," he continued, trying to ameliorate his words. "I have confidence in what I know. It's simply that the details of the investigation may be"--he shrugged--"a little nasty."
"And yet you want me to let you go there alone?"
"My dear--"
"What if something happens to you?"
"Nothing will."
"What if it does? With me in New York, and you in Maine?"
"Edith, nothing's going to happen."
"Then there's no reason I can't go." She tried to smile. "I'm not afraid, Lionel."
"I know you're not."
"I won't get in your way."
Barrett sighed.
"I know I don't understand much of what you're doing, but there are always things I can do to help. Pack and unload your equipment, for instance. Help you set up your experiments. Type the rest of your manuscript; you said you wanted to have it ready by the first of the year. And I want to be with you when you prove your theory."
Barrett nodded. "Let me think about it."
"I won't be in your way," she promised. "And I know there are any number of things I can do to help."
He nodded again, trying to think. It was obvious she didn't want to stay behind. He could appreciate that. Except for his three weeks in London in 1962, they'd never been separated since their marriage. Would it really hurt that much to take her? Certainly, she'd experienced enough psychic phenomena by now to be accustomed to it.
Still, that house was such an unknown factor. It hadn't been called Hell House without reason. There was a power there strong enough to physically and/or mentally demolish eight people, three of whom had been scientists like himself.
Even believing that he knew exactly what that power was, dare he expose Edith to it?
 
Copyright © 1971 by Richard Matheson; copyright © renewed 1999 by Richard Matheson Richard Matheson was The New York Times bestselling author of I Am Legend, Hell House, Somewhere in Time, The Incredible Shrinking Man, A Stir of Echoes, The Beardless Warriors, The Path, Seven Steps to Midnight, Now You See It…, and What Dreams May Come, among others. He was named a Grand Master of Horror by the World Horror Convention, and received the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement. He has also won the Edgar, the Spur, and the Writer's Guild awards. In 2010, he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. In addition to his novels Matheson wrote several screenplays for movies and TV, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” based on his short story, along with several other Twilight Zone episodes. He was born in New Jersey and raised in Brooklyn, and fought in the infantry in World War II. He earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. Matheson died in June, 2013, at the age of eighty-seven.