'How to Sell a Haunted House' is campy and tense, dark but also deep
Grady Hendrix's work occupies a unique interstitial space between emotional storytelling, unnerving, gory horror, and a dash of comedy. His latest, How to Sell a Haunted House, fully embraces all the elements readers have come to love about what he does.
Campy, unexpectedly deep — and as creepy as the dead eyes of a puppet at midnight in a gloomy room — How to Sell a Haunted House is a tense, dark novel that looks at family trauma and a life-long sibling rivalry while also delivering a heaping serving of demonic puppets, violence, and even undead squirrels.
Growing up, Louise wanted to move far from home because her mother was hard to deal with, and she felt like her brother was her parents' favorite and got everything handed to him while she had to work for things. Now she's an adult, has her own daughter, and rarely talks to her estranged brother, who still lives back in Charleston. She has no plans to go back home, but when she learns her parents have died in an accident, she must put everything aside, leave her daughter with her ex, and travel home. In the aftermath of death, those left behind must deal with a lot of practical things on top of the emotional turmoil. And in Louise's, and her brother Mark's, case, the biggest things is her parents' house, which is full of her mother's folk art and a big collection of dolls and homemade puppets.
Despite being adults, Louise and Mark immediately start fighting again and, even worse, he inherits everything except their mother's art, which goes to Louise — seemingly confirming what she has always thought about her brother being the favorite. After a few altercations, Mark agrees to give Louise a percentage of the money if she sticks around and helps him sell, but that is easier said than done despite a favorable market. There is something in the house, a strange presence that turns off the realtor trying to help them. There are sounds in the attic, which their parents had boarded up, and the puppets and creepy dolls seem to have a mind of their own. Mark and Louise will be much richer if they manage to sell the house but the house, just like them, is full of dark secrets that must come to the light if they hope to ever get rid of it.
How to Sell a Haunted House is an entertaining read that morphs into something new a few times. The first third of the book is all about Louise's heartbreak, an introduction to the house's eerie vibes, and Louise learning that her brother, who's always been a mess and keeps getting fired from crappy jobs, has gotten everything. Then Louise is attacked by the taxidermied squirrels from a Nativity set at the house and the narrative switches points of view to show Mark's side of the story.
Mark's narrative reveals that the things Louise judges him for are not what she thought they were. This second part quickly descends into chaos as Mark recounts his time with a group of street performers and puppeteers, tells Louise about the things they did while in a bizarre form of trance — brought on by one of their mother's puppets named Pupkin — and shares a lesson he learned from the group's leader before he managed to run away: "A puppet is a possession that possesses the possessor." Throughout Mark's story, Hendrix masterfully combines trauma with a story about possession and insanity.
After revisiting childhood trauma, coming clean about a lot of things, and accepting that Pupkin is at the core of what's wrong with the house, the siblings join forces, but what they fight might be too much for them. The last part of the novel is a gruesome battle to save the house and themselves that explores how hard it is for people to change who they are, while also delving deep into how Pupkin came to be.
There's something magical about books where you can tell the author was having fun while writing — and it seems like this was the case for Hendrix when writing How to Sell a Haunted House. Also, this is a book that constantly goes from tense and frustrating to unsettling and sad to lighthearted and fun, and the constant shifts keep readers on their toes and create curiosity about what comes next.
Hendrix is a contemporary horror master, and the combination of profound storytelling and unapologetic, campy gore he delivers here will surely have horror fans reading with a gleeful smile on their faces. Just try to make sure there aren't any sudden noises when you're reading — and remove all dolls, masks, and puppets from your house before starting the first chapter.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
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