"For over twenty years, Belasco House has stood empty. Regarded as the Mount Everest of haunted houses, it is a venerable mansion whose shadowed walls have witnessed scenes of almost unimaginable horror and depravity. Two previous expeditions to investigate its secrets met with disaster, the participants destroyed by murder, suicide, or insanity. Now a new investigation has been mounted, bringing four strangers to the forbidding mansion, determined to probe Belasco House for the ultimate secrets of life and death. Each has his or her own reason for daring the unknown torments and temptations of the mansion, but can any soul survive what lurks within the most haunted house on Earth?"
" '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.' " Barrett, our main character, explains before setting out to investigate the Belasco House in the paranormal novel, Hell House.
At the beginning of the book, Barrett is speaking to a rich man named Deutsch, who is on his death bed, and wanting to know if life exists after death:
" '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.' "
Along with Barrett and Fischer a well-known medium named Florence and Barrett's wife, Edith join them on their trip to the Belasco house. Fischer is also a medium, who gets prodded at by Florence for refusing to use his 'gift:'
" 'You were the most powerful physical medium this country has ever known, Ben.'
'Still am, Florence. Just a little bit more careful now, that's all. I suggest the same approach for you. You're walking around this house like an open nerve. When you really do hit something, it'll tear your insides out. This place isn't called Hell House for nothing, you know. It intends to kill every one of us, so you'd damn well better learn to protect yourself until you're ready. Or you'll just be one more victim on the list.' "
Florence's need to prove that spirits exist to Barrett, the skeptic of the group, permeates throughout the entire book. She allows him to subject her to entirely naked pat-downs and the use of all sorts of instruments while she becomes possessed by spirits in the house. She slowly begins to lose her patience with Barrett every time she speaks with him about the possibility of ghosts existing until one day she becomes so infuriated with him that the entire dining area becomes a minefield of seemingly unaided flying dishes.
Even after this incident, Barrett refuses to believe that the Belasco house is haunted and that spirits exist. As the reader continues on through the story, Barrett's skepticism becomes a little annoying with the amount of paranormal things that happen, especially how he has a scientific reasoning for everything: " 'Making use of the power in the room,' he[Barrett] said. 'Converting it to poltergeist-type phenomena directed at me.' " As Fischer and Florence continue to find evidence of paranormal activity, Barrett stays focused on a machine that he invented to arrive soon, which he states will prove his theory of energy causing the 'hauntings,' rather than spirits, while avoiding all evidence that may prove otherwise.
Early on, Florence becomes preoccupied with a spirit in the house, who she believes to be the son of Belasco (the man who owned the house). After coming in contact with this spirit, physical harm starts to come to Florence, one such incident is of something in the night biting her breasts hard enough to leave teeth marks. Barrett and the others find her, crying in bed during this, where she states that Belasco is punishing her for finding and communicating with his son.
During all of this, Edith seems to come under an influence at the house, which causes her to start to drink heavily although she's never touched a drop of alcohol in her life due to an alcoholic father. One incident with a drunk Edith, she comes onto Fischer in a way that makes the reader question whether or not this is a spirit taking her over, or if this is what Edith is like when she's drunk. When Fischer confronts Barrett about his wife and her possible possession by the house, Barrett refuses to see it as that:
" 'Irrelevant?' Fischer looked amazed. 'What the hell do you mean, irrelevant? Whatever's going on is getting to your wife. It's gotten to Florence, and it's gotten to you. Or maybe you haven't noticed.'
Barrett regarded him in silence, his expression hard. 'I've noticed a number of things, Mr. Fischer,' he finally said. 'One of which is that Mr. Deutsch is wasting approximately a third of his money.' "
Although Hell House has all of the great paranormal tropes in it, it objectifies women almost to an extreme, and to a point that it isn't believable at all to the reader: the Belasco house is one of depravity, including sexual interactions, but Belasco's guests were both female and male, yet only sexual things (albeit crude) only happen to Florence and Edith, neither Barrett or Fischer are affected. Hell House is a great story with an even greater villain, but Matheson really ruined the story with his crude fantasies about women. I absolutely think this book is better than the Haunting of Hill House because the scares are better while Haunting lacked a lot of them. If you can get past a horny man's fantasies, then the book is very enjoyable.