How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Grady Hendrix has heart. And not just the bloody kind that makes for a tasty zombie meal. Like his idol, Stephen King, Hendrix balances the wholesome and the horrific in equal measure, tackling trauma and terror with a tender hand and humorous quips. At the core of every one of his novels, the author's central focus is on dysfunctional human relationships - relationships, of course, set amid the backdrop of the spooky, surreal, and supernatural. Hendrix's newest novel, How to Sell a Haunted House , is no different: at the center of the story is a family on rocky terrain, with the titular haunted house amplifying the fractured familial relationships... And what a fractured family this is.
How to Sell a Haunted House begins with a pregnancy, but death follows only a few pages later. Our protagonist, Louise Joyner, receives a phone call from her estranged brother, Mark, who delivers heartbreaking news: their parents, Eric and Nancy, have been killed in a car accident. Ever the dutiful daughter, Louise flies from San Francisco to Charleston, ready to take on her seemingly good-for-nothing sibling. Once she arrives in South Carolina, creepy things start happening in her childhood home: TVs flicker on in empty rooms, immobile dolls seem to move about, and inanimate objects attack with a furry vengeance. Nancy's favorite childhood doll, Pupkin, plays a prominent role in terrifying the Joyner household - in multiple generations, nonetheless. This particular puppet, which gives Chucky and Annabelle a run for their macabre money, acts out in grotesque and gory ways; there are some terrifically terrifying sequences (the eyeball and tablesaw scenes are particularly gruesome), providing some ghastly images that will stay with the reader long after the final pages of the story. As the novel progresses, we discover the origins of Pupkin and his link to the Joyner family, with a carefully crafted reveal that brings the story full circle. Needless to say, I'll never look at The Velveteen Rabbit the same way ever again.
In many ways, How to Sell a Haunted House is classic ghost story fare, with dark multigenerational secrets and supernatural artifacts galore. However, Hendrix is more interested in the dynamics of a fractured family than he is in blood and bodily harm (though there is some of that, as well). While there are a few plot holes in the story (wait until you meet "Spider"), the majority of Haunted House is impressively evocative. At times, the novel reminded me of Ari Aster's Hereditary - albeit with fewer beheadings. Like that uber-disturbing film, Hendrix intertwines the horrors of the supernatural with the trauma of familial dysfunction. For me, the most haunting moment of Haunted House involves Louise's daughter, Poppy; while her fate is much less ghastly than that of Charlie in Hereditary, both writers tap into the nightmares of every doting parent. Nothing is worse than watching a child suffer, and Hendrix truly knows how to play upon those fears.
Previous entries in the Hendrix canon have addressed exorcisms, vampires, slasher films, and portals to hell. This time, the author examines two other classic horror tropes: haunted houses and devilish dolls. After reading Hendrix's brilliant Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction , I was deeply impressed by his breadth of knowledge about historical trends in the world of horror. Clearly, the man has done his homework. In some ways, How to Sell a Haunted House reads like a long-lost pulp fiction bestseller from the 1980s - with 21st-century sensibilities, of course. You have killer dolls, possessed realia, and even imaginary animals come to life... and, yes, it's as wild as it sounds. It's plain to see that Hendrix enjoys subverting expectations, even as he pays homage to not-so-classic horror novels of yesteryear. And, as usual, he balances horror and humor with heart.
After reading How to Sell a Haunted House, I can honestly say that Grady Hendrix is hitting his stride. Despite a few flawed entries in his early oeuvre, Mr. Hendrix has successfully evolved into a reliable vendor of amusingly insightful horror. Like Stephen King and Mike Flanagan, Grady Hendrix is a purveyor of "wholesome horror" - spooky stories that ultimately provide catharsis and exorcism (sometimes literally). After all, grief is like emotional calculus. No matter how much work you put into working out the problem, it's far too complex to solve in a short period of time. Hendrix understands this phenomenon, and he brings it to life (like The Velveteen Rabbit, come to think of it) in the cleverly crafted pages of How to Sell a Haunted House.
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Gerald's Game by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'll be honest: I dismissed Gerald's Game for years as a weird BDSM entry in Stephen King's long and winding career. It wasn't until recently, when I watched Mike Flanagan's 2017 film adaptation, that I realized just how wrong I had been. At first glance, it's easy to jump to the same conclusions that I did: as the blurb explains, this novel is about a woman, Jessie Burlingame, who ends up stranded in the countryside and handcuffed to a bedpost during a sexual escapade gone wrong - very wrong. On the surface, this seems like classic King, with an edgy topic and the hovering specter of death on the horizon. However, Gerald's Game isn't about risqué sexual encounters as much as it is about trauma, rape, misogyny, and sexual abuse. Beneath the spooky exterior, this is actually one of King's most straightforward examinations of suffering and the psychological aftermath of trauma. Color me surprised.
The basic gist of Gerald's Game is as follows: Jessie Burlingame and her husband, the eponymous Gerald, escape for a brief romantic getaway to their rustic lake house in Maine. During an intimate encounter that quickly goes off the rails, Gerald suffers a heart attack and dies, leaving Jessie alone and chained up - with nary a soul in sight to help. While she's trapped and cuffed to her bed, Jessie faces two challenges: the physical task of freeing herself from her metal restraints, and the psychological journey of coming to grips with a traumatic childhood event. During flashback sequences, King uses the astronomical phenomenon of an eclipse to mirror a horrific personal experience that casts a long shadow over the rest of Jessie's life. That darkness, unlike the brief blackout of the sun that ten-year-old Jessie witnesses, is not so easily dismissed.
It's impressive that Stephen King takes such a seemingly simplistic core of a story and expands upon it for hundreds of pages, delving into a wide variety of psychological hurdles. Over the course of the novel, the reader watches Jessie use MacGyver-esque creativity to survive, which in itself is a surprisingly engaging aspect of the book. The most vital part of Jessie's story arc, however, is embedded within her mental acrobatics as she lies imprisoned in her bed.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Stephen King novel without a little extra "creep factor" thrown in, so things inevitably get even worse for our poor protagonist. The book hits some familiar macabre notes when Jessie is inevitably haunted by a mysterious "Moonlight Man" (a.k.a. the "Space Cowboy") who hides in the shadows of the Burlingames' bedroom. This misshapen specter visits Jessie at nighttime, inciting her to ponder whether he is a figment of her imagination or something even more sinister. While this might seem like an unnecessary addition to the story - one that initially seems to detract from the 127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place vibe of the novel - this plot point ultimately complements Jessie's story arc and growth as a character, as she comes to grips with her own childhood monsters.
Although this is a very tidy, constricting setup for a 400-page novel, Gerald's Game delves into the fathomless depths of the human mind to flesh out the story. King is a master writer, a word-dancer who utilizes a limited stage setting to foster hours and hours of thought-provoking conversations. In the first hundred pages of the novel, King bluntly addresses rape (even seemingly consensual date rape), deconstructs the "male gaze," and discusses the dehumanizing way that women are viewed by men. This is not just a two-dimensional horror story with a supernatural antagonist. Rather, much of the villainy we see is from mundane, everyday folks - characters not unlike the people we interact with on a daily basis in the real world.
What's so surprising now, thirty years after its publication, is how ahead of its time - perhaps even prophetic - Gerald's Game actually is. King, despite all his obsessions with the dark, dirty, and demonic, is a champion of the underdog and the underrepresented. King's masterpiece, It , confronts a variety of topics: racism, sexism, child abuse, bullying, neuroses, molestation, and many other subtle (and not-so-subtle) issues. For several members of the "Loser's Club," Pennywise is the least horrific of their worries. Likewise, Jessie Burlingame is a character whose woes stretch much further than a deformed, moonlight-clad killer. For Jessie, darkness has been a constant, haunting companion throughout adolescence and adulthood. And sometimes those childhood shadows are much harder to shake.
In the end, Gerald's Game is a proto-#MeToo story that illustrates how much the world has changed over the last three decades. Though not nearly as well known as Wendy Torrance, Beverly Marsh, Annie Wilkes, or Carrie White, Jessie Burlingame is a heroine worthy of recognition. This novel is undoubtedly a timestamped tale from the King of Horror, but it's also a gentle reminder of how timeless trauma and heroism can be.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.