Ian Mond Reviews How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix
How to Sell a Haunted House, Grady Hendrix (Berkley 978-0-59320-126-8, $28.00, 400p, hc) January 2023.
Over the last several years, I’ve drifted away from core (mainstream) horror fiction to the extent that I haven’t read the last few Stephen King novels (something that I could not have imagined less than a decade ago). Grady Hendrix is the exception. Since picking up My Best Friend’s Exorcism back in 2016, I’ve eagerly read (and reviewed) each of his subsequent novels. Moreso than his contemporaries (including King), Hendrix recognises that with horror fiction, there’s a fine line between the chilling and the ridiculous. This was evident in the ‘‘Freaky Friday’’ column Hendrix wrote for Tor.com (since shifted over to his mailing list, ‘‘Paperbacks From Hell’’), where, with nostalgic glee, he showcased the numerous horror paperbacks from the ’70s and ’80s that fell on the wrong side of that divide. His choice of titles such as My Best Friend’s Exorcism, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires and The Final Girl Support Group reinforces this tongue-in-cheek attitude to the genre. But if all Hendrix did was satirise worn horror tropes, I would have lost interest. It’s that he both takes the piss and commits totally to the premise (whether it’s demonic possession, vampires or serial killers) that has me coming back to his work. Hendrix’s latest, How to Sell a Haunted House, is the near-perfect distillation of this form: a novel that is both very funny and truly scary.
When Louise’s parents die tragically in a car accident, she leaves her five-year-old daughter, Poppy, with her ex and travels back home to Charleston to settle their affairs. This involves dealing with her washout of a brother, Mark, who their parents always favoured despite his dropping out of college and struggling to hold a job. When a technicality in the will sees Mark take full ownership of the family house, with no intention of splitting the proceeds with his sister, a justifiably pissed-off Louise decides to make life difficult for her brother by delaying the sale. But as Louise slowly goes through her parent’s belongings, she begins to realise that there’s something not right about the house. It’s the nailed-up attic that reminds her ‘‘of the one zombie movie [her ex] Ian had made her watch’’; it’s the sudden sharp noises coming from the walls; it’s the TV, stuck on the Home Shopping Network, watched by the dead eyes of her mother’s massive collection of dolls and handmade puppets. This includes Pupkin, her mother’s favourite puppet, the one who:
she’d taken everywhere with her, the one she’d use to tell Bible stories to young audiences, the one she’d learned ventriloquism for, the one who told Mark and Louise bedtime stories, the one who had been in [their mother’s] life before them…. The one who made Louise’s skin crawl.
As Louise and Mark are about to discover, their sibling spat is nothing compared to what Pupkin has in store for them.
How to Sell a Haunted House is cleverly split into the five stages of grief, starting with ‘‘Denial.’’ As such, the initial focus is on Louise’s struggle to accept the loss of her parents and her unwillingness – in traditional haunted house style – to recognise there’s something wrong with her parent’s home (even after three dead squirrels attack her). By the time we’ve moved through several stages of grief, and Pupkin has made his presence felt, Hendrix has done the work to establish what’s emotionally at stake – not just the sale of the house but also Louise’s intense feelings of guilt toward her brother, who she can’t find in her heart to love, and her daughter, who she’s left in an emotional mess having made the mistake of telling Polly that her grandparents were dead, something the five-year-old wasn’t ready to process. Hendrix’s sublime character work is also the main source of the novel’s humour, particularly Mark and Louise’s extended family on their mother’s side. I particularly loved their ‘‘take-no-shit’’ cousin Mercy, a real estate agent who, having checked out the property, informs the siblings their ‘‘house is haunted, and I’m not selling it until you deal with that,’’ and the larger-than-life Aunt Gail, who spends her days ‘‘blast[ing demons] back to hell’’ and ‘‘once battled a Warlock in Summerville.’’ Aunt Gail’s hilarious argument with her friend Barb about whether Pupkin is demonically possessed or just haunted, a scene that occurs toward the novel’s frightening denouement, perfectly demonstrates Hendrix’s skill at nimbly shifting between fear and comedy.
On the subject of Pupkin, aside from the Killer Krusty Doll that features in The Simpsons’ third instalment of ‘‘Tree House of Horror’’ (‘‘Yep, here’s your problem. Someone set this thing to Evil’’), psychotic dolls and puppets have never left an impression on me. So, when I realised about a quarter of the way through that Pupkin was set to be the main antagonist, I was disappointed that the novel’s plot wasn’t going to more reflect its title. (I could easily imagine a reality TV series where Mercy, with the assistance of Aunt Gail, sells high-end haunted houses). But then Hendrix presents us with two flashbacks. The first of these follows a recognisable horror trope, the child (in this case, Louise) is persuaded by an evil entity (Pupkin) to murder her toddler sibling (Mark). It’s chilling and disturbing but also familiar. The second flashback is something else altogether. For one, it’s much longer. For two, it involves Mark’s time in college and his decision to stop attending classes and join a radical group of political puppeteers. His mistake is asking his mother to send over Pupkin, hoping the creepy puppet will establish his credentials. This flashback not only forces us to completely reevaluate Mark, but it positions Pupkin as one of the most frightening, anarchic and troubling villains I’ve come across in a long time. How to Sell a Haunted House is very much Pupkin’s novel; I’ll be side-eyeing any doll or puppet I encounter for years to come.
Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at email@example.com.
This review and more like it in the January 2023 issue of Locus.
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