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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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.