Villainlicious: Emeric Belasco [Richard Mathesons’ Hell House] by Bea Harper

If I had to short-list a bunch of my favourite authors (bearing in mind the consistency and quality of their work) the late and dearly departed Richard Matheson would easily be in the Top Three. His tales have endured for just over half a century and still remain among the finest when it comes to the difficult beast that is horror fiction. Writing innovative and memorable horror is no small feat and very few authors around have managed to cement what this entity is all about. Some alongside Matheson have been hugely successful and rightly so; Stephen King, Clive Barker and Richard Laymon being amongst them while others, while not wholly talentless do have a tendency to flounder more than swim the current; Dean Koontz, Graham Masterson and John Saul being figures of interest.

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Mathesons’ work has been equally shocking yet essential, wild yet welcomed but there is no denying his influence have been felt by everybody who adores the genre. He was able to turn the most common subject matter into something truly terrifying while at the same time being able to capture your imagination like a supreme magician. You know it’s a trick but you go along with it because the pay-off will be rewarding to your sense of wonder. Hell House (penned in 1971) remains one of Mathesons’ finest hours and it’s little wonder given the simplicity of the story on a basic level; a rich cross-section of individuals are paid X amount of money to spend time in a house thought to be haunted only to be menaced by a frightening force that either wants them to leave or make them a part of the location forever. It’s such a basic story and in all truth it is hardly unlike anything we have heard before and upon first glance you would be right in saying that Matheson hardly does anything to truly re-invent the old Haunted House cliché. Some even consider this book to be a touched up re-make of Shirley Jacksons’ psychological chiller The Haunting of Hill House and in a few cases they are right, but upon further inspection, the stories tend to diverge in very interesting directions. While Jacksons’ work is undoubtedly disturbing on a psychological with its deliberate, slow-burn pace that keeps its ghosts and ghouls to the shadows, Mathesons’ take is far more visceral and immediately foreboding with a far more deliberate aim and has no qualms in palm-heeling the reader in the face. This is not to say one work is more superior than the other because both of them have their very own agendas to tell the tale they wish to convey to the reader. However, in saying so, Mathesons’ tale is far more physically violent and makes no bones about what sort of malevolent spirits that reside within Hell House. Apart from physical assaults and traumatic injuries inflicted on the visitors’ party the true evil that lurks within these walls all come from one man, so depraved, so perverted and cruel that it proves that even in death, maleficence still lives on- Emeric Belasco.

 

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Makings Of The Monster

Early in the story, the characters (and reader) are told that Belasco was dubbed ‘Evil Emeric’ by his mother when he was a small child. He was said to have once killed a cat to see if it would revive for the next of its 9 lives. When it did not he eviscerated the corpse and tossed the remains out a window. He sexually assaulted his sister and she was hospitalized for months; he was 10. He was shuffled off to private school for the rest of his school years and shortly after that his parents both died under mysterious circumstances leaving him exorbitantly wealthy.

In his prime, Belasco was said to have been a towering man also called the Roaring Giant and he built his huge house in Maine and began to invite other high social powerhouses and idle folks for long stays. At first it was all very genteel – but then he injected some bed hopping and other seemingly innocent activities into the mix. At first it seemed sophisticated and much with the times, but it became more and more depraved. Drugs, sex and unthinkable instances of debauchery kept a covenant of people prisoners in the house.

Eventually Belasco withdrew from direct participation in his “charnel house of fancies” and lurked behind the scenes to orchestrate and observe. He eventually staged a recreation of de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. For this he brought in hunchbacks and dwarves, hermaphrodites and grotesques of every sort. It was during this time that the infrastructure of the house collapsed; no servants remained so there was no laundry done or food bought or prepared and the generator fell into disrepair. Influenza hit and the furnace died. The death toll mounted and as a final, terrifying resort, the survivors turned and subsequently reveled in mutilation, murder, necrophilia and cannibalism.

Eventually, relatives of the guests showed up at the estate and broke into the house only to have found 27 souls dead. Belasco was not among them. The house was abandoned.

To say Mr. Belasco was a bit sick in the head would be an understatement.

Mind of the Monster

Belasco as a character has pretty much over-stepped the line of common decency and into that of depravity. Sigmund Freud penned the term ‘id’ when it comes to this type of selfish, depraved behaviour, but I find another prominent psycho-analysts’ theory applies just as well here, that of Carl Jung and his studies, more specifically to this case being his work on Archetypes.

Archetypes

Archetypes (Jung, 1947) are images and thoughts which have universal meanings across cultures which may show up I dreams, literature, art or religion.

Jung believes symbols from different cultures are often very similar because they have emerged from archetypes shared by the whole human race. For Jung, our primitive past becomes the basis of the human psyche, directing and influencing present behavior. Jung claimed to identify a large number of archetypes but paid special attention to four.

The “persona” (or mask) is the outward face we present to the world. It conceals our real self and Jung describes it as the “conformity” archetype. This is the public face or role a person presents to others as someone different to who we really are (like an actor).

Another archetype is the anima/animus. The “anima/animus” is the mirror image of our biological sex, that is, the unconscious feminine side in males and the masculine tendencies in women. Each sex manifests attitudes and behavior of the other by virtue of centuries of living together. The psyche of a woman contains masculine aspects (the animus archetype) and the psyche of a man contains feminine aspects (the anima archetype).

Next is the shadow. This is the animal side of our personality (like the id in Freud). It is the source of both our creative and destructive energies. In line with evolutionary theory it may be that Jung’s archetypes reflect predispositions that once had survival value.

Finally there is the self which provides a sense of unity in experience. For Jung the ultimate aim of every individual is to achieve a state of selfhood (similar to self-actualisation) and in this respect Jung (like Erikson) is moving in the direction of a more humanist orientation.

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Although the above definition is pretty general, there is no denying that the principal attributes of Belasco’s nature can be traced through each one of these, allow me to elaborate a little further.

Persona- This is the performers’ face that Emeric probably assumed to hide his deep, dark desires and his destructive nature. Up until much later in life when he became the evil sorcerer behind the metaphorical crystal ball of what happened in that mansion, Belasco obviously had to maintain some sense of socially accepted normalcy even if it was superficial.

Animus- This may be reaching, but I find this could be a combination between the sister he sexually abused as well as the female visitors to his home. Both sexes were free to do what they pleased and we can only guess some of the activities guests of both sexes participated in- cross-dressing, bisexuality, gender role-play are but a few things that were considered to be sexual perversions that could have occurred in this house. Although Matheson leaves some of this to the imagination, I have no problem believing these things happened. Mayhap Belasco wanted to be in the shoes of his female tenants, maybe he was more so curious as to how women responded to the type of stimuli that is usually attributed to men.

Shadow- This is pretty obvious. The guy knew what he was doing was foul and beyond moral comprehension and he did it because he felt he could.

Self- His spirit and that of all of those who died under his roof all live together in what could only be presumed to be a hellish eternity. Yeah, it’s a bit of a cop-out statement to make, but Matheson does actually relate this back to the reader as the novel continues to unfold.

While Belascos’ past is more or less left up in the air intentionally by Matheson there is no doubt that Belasco felt that he was beyond human confines when it came to what he could and could not do during his time on earth in the prison of flesh as well as the existence the spirit world provided him. He felt he was permitted to enforce his will on others, that it was his given right and there was nothing at all to challenge him. If anything, death provided the ultimate release for him since his power in Hell House manifests itself so lustily that absolutely nobody is immune despite the fact most of the characters in the book possess a sense of psychological awareness. Given the sheer strength of psychic energy that Belascos’ evil emits through the house it is little wonder that there has been no way the hand of God could possibly intervene and so long as Belasco remains in that house, where he is at his most optimum strength, there really is no amount of divine intervention that can be delivered on the house. Belasco isn’t Lucifer of course, but since when do people need the presence of Lucifer to be evil when they have a fatal sense of entitlement and no compassion for their fellow human beings?

Conclusion

Belasco has only ever been fully portrayed once and that was for the 1973 film The Legend of Hell House directed by John Hough with Michael Gough (YES! Alfred from Batman!) in the role. Although we don’t see a lot of the man, just like the character in the book his presence is felt like a dark, oozing menace. While the film has some interesting moments, I didn’t really feel too invested in it. It had a pretty damn good cast and several fascinating variations from the story that I never felt bored, but while watching it, I couldn’t help but feel the desire to see the film being made again but with a bigger budget and fewer restrictions placed on it. Oh sure, there was only so much the film could do given the time and budget and I totally understand, but given the measure of intensity of the story and the interesting characters involved, it’s high time Hell House grew another set of wings. Could it surpass the story? Well sure, I don’t see why not, but what I ask is that this figurative adaptation respects the source material while at the same time respects itself, but alas, that is an article for another day.

Old Emeric is a powerful villain that you really don’t see a lot of, but the moment you set foot in his palace of lascivious despair, you cannot squeeze out of his grip for the harder you struggle, the more powerful he becomes and eventually you too will become yet another afflicted servant of his will.

 

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