RICHARD MATHESON'S HELL HOUSE (graphic novel)
Adaptation by Ian Edginton (writer) and Simon Fraser (illustrator)
IDW Publishing, October 2005
ISBN: 1-933239-20-4 (hardback)
This review was first published in All Hallows #40, October 2005
© Brian J. Showers 2006
For those of you who haven't read Richard Matheson's haunted house opus, Hell House (1971)--maybe because you're trapped, surrounded by vampires, and can't get to the library--here is a quick recap. Ailing newspaper magnate Rolf Rudolph Deutsch hires parapsychologist Dr. Lionel Barrett to investigate Belasco House, and answer one simple question: Is there 'survival' after death? One hundred thousand dollars for one week in a haunted mansion--sounds easy, but the problem is Belasco House is the 'Mount Everest of haunted houses' and those whose lives haven't been claimed by the house are driven mad by it. Accompanying Dr. Barrett are his faithful wife Edith; Ben Fischer, a powerful psychic and only survivor of an earlier investigation at the house; and mental medium Florence Tanner. Within twenty-four hours of arriving at the Belasco House, the researchers are beckoned by apparitions and assaulted by hostile spirits until their own personalities dramatically begin to erode. Driven to answer Old Man Deutsch's question, the researchers press onward, each straining to prove their differing theories--but the question slowly changes, becoming not one of surviving death, but surviving Hell House.
Ian Edginton has the task of adapting the Mount Everest of haunted house novels, and wastes no time getting started. He does so deftly and the comic misses not a single cue from the novel. Adapting a comic is always a question of which words to retain, which words should be converted to illustrations, and which words should be dropped altogether? Edginton has no trouble making these judgments, and breaks down the novel into dialogue and panels with an expert ease that he maintains throughout the book.
The characters also make the successful leap from novel to comic. This is a testament to the strength of Matheson's story as much as it is to Edginton's adaptation. The characters are archetypes through which the story is able to explore complex afterlife philosophies, a recurrent pet theme in Matheson novels. Florence Tanner is a gullible and dangerously optimistic new ager; Ben Fischer is cautious and morbidly introspective, his experiences and inner workings closed off to the other characters as much as he is turned off to the house; Dr. Barrett is driven by his work and devoted belief in na´ve theories; and Mrs. Barrett, impressionable and unsure of herself, is a raw nerve at the epicentre of Belasco's depravity. Matheson's ruminations are subtle enough without bogging down the casual reader, and accessible enough to those who wish to engage the novel on another level. Edginton misses none of the subtleties.
Richard Matheson's Hell House, like the best comic books, tells the story with pictures as much as it does with words. Ian Edginton wisely knows when to lay down his pen and hand over the reigns to his collaborator, Simon Fraser. And Fraser, whose art is stylistically reminiscent of Eddie Campbell's work on From Hell (1999), is never lazy with the narrative duties. His illustrations are black and white with dark corners and ominous shadows throughout. While these dark corners leave enough space for the reader's imagination to play, Fraser never skimps on texture and detail. His fortÚ is facial expression, and he deftly uses the entire range of emotions to convey the characters written by Matheson and preserved by Edginton.
Fraser's most effective illustrations, however, are those that reduce the characters to mere passive objects, and let the atmosphere of Belasco House march forward, trampling the reader's fear sensors. One of the best examples of this is the first glimpse of Belasco House, a two-page spread. The characters are dwarfed in the foreground, the monolithic house rising, sinister and overwhelming before them. Belasco House is an ominous patchwork of architectural design: Byzantine towers, Grecian balconies, Elizabethan gables, Colonial New England dormers and a front door like a Roman mausoleum. To view this illustration is to feel what the characters feel.
Richard Matheson's Hell House was originally published as a prestige-format, four-issue miniseries from December 2004 to June 2005. Admittedly, Messrs. Edginton's and Fraser's adaptation isn't a groundbreaking tour de force that supersedes the source material (very few can one-up Matheson), but their skilled and faithful interpretation makes for an extremely pleasant read. If you have never visited Hell House before, you should definitely read the novel first. If you enjoyed the novel and wish to experience the horrors of Belasco House again--and don't mind letting someone else show you around--this graphic novel is the way to go. And if you're a glutton for punishment, there's always John Hough's lamentable/commendable film version The Legend of Hell House (1973).
IDW Publishing has also collected horror-comic superstar Steve Niles's adaptation of Matheson's classic vampire novel I Am Legend (1954). If the quality of Richard Matheson's Hell House is any indication, Niles's Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (2003) might also be worth heading over to your local comic shop for a peek. Unless, of course, you've incredibly shrunk to the size of a thimble and the way is fraught with over-sized spiders.
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