Signal Horizon

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{Book Review} How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

Ghosts and grief go hand in hand. That’s just good horror common sense. After all, what is a ghost but the past unburied, magically brought to life? And what is grief, but our traumatic response to our present becoming the past?

Ultimately, Grady Hendrix makes grief the foundation of his newest novel, How to Sell A Haunted House. Specifically, Hendrix tells his story of grief by focusing on a duo of troubled siblings, Louise and Mark Joyner. When their parents die in a car accident, the main protagonist of the duo, Louise, dreads having to deal with a house stuffed with puppets and dolls, her deadbeat brother, and, more importantly, a world after her parents have left it. However, her problems soon grow steadily worse than simple sibling rivalry. Something waits in the house for both Mark and Louise. Something that isn’t too keen on either of the siblings selling the house and moving on.

In many respects, Hendrix’s haunted house story plays with pretty well-worn tropes. Creepy dolls and puppets? Check. Repressed memories? Check. Generational trauma? Check. What makes How to Sell a Haunted House stand out from other haunted house fare lies mostly in his portrayal of the family.

By far, Louise and Mark are the most well-developed characters in the book. They really stand out in this work primarily because of how real they feel. Neither of them are particularly likable people, and that’s why they work. Instead, both Louise and Mark express a selfishness and self-centeredness that feels remarkably true considering their circumstances and their trauma.

One of the best indicators of these flaws shows up in an early scene with Louise and her daughter, Poppy. Soon after getting the news of her family’s death, Louise considers what the best move would be when telling her daughter. As Hendrix writes:

Louise’s mom also had a pathological inability to discuss death. When their uncle Arthur had a heart attack and drove his riding lawn mower through a greenhouse, she’d told Mark and Louise she and their dad were going to Myrtle Beach for a vacation, then parked them with Aunt Honey. When Sue Estes’ older sister died of leukemia in fifth grade, her mom had told Louise she was too young to go to the funeral. Her friendship with Sue was never the same after that…

When Louise had Poppy, she vowed to be honest about death. She knew that stating facts plainly would be the best way for Poppy to understand that death was part of life. She would answer all of Poppy’s questions with absolute honesty, and if she didn’t know something they’d figure out the answer together.

Of course, when Louise decides to tell Poppy the blunt truth of her grandparents’ passing, this only traumatizes the poor girl in a different way than Louise remembers from her own life. Louise consistently responds to conflict and distress by assuming that her own solutions must be the only correct and practical solutions. It’s a very easy mindset for many people to fall into, and it’s all too common when experiencing something as shaking as the death of a family member.

By contrast, her brother, Mark, often chooses to run away from problems when they get to be too much. His mother has a hoarding problem with the many puppets and dolls she created over the spread of her life. Well, it’s time to call a clutter-cleaning company without mentioning anything to the rest of the family! A haunted house? Let’s lie about it and just sell it before we can deal with the problem for too long. The dolls and puppets are starting to look way more active than they should be? It’s time to bail. Cowardly and self-serving as he is, however, Mark’s personality also makes sense in a family that refuses to confront the trauma of its past. After all, are you really doing something wrong if this is the pattern set by every adult in your life? Especially if it seems to work?

Until, of course, the problem gets too big to solve by either insisting only your own reality is true or by running away.

The other big strength of the book lies in its antagonist. Of all the creepy haunted puppets in the book, the strongest personality is Pupkin, a strange and terrifying woolen clown puppet. He exemplifies the pupaphobe’s worst nightmare. Speaking with the vocabulary of a rambunctious and innocent child, Pupkin terrorizes our protagonists with a violent streak big enough to make Chucky look tame. Hendrix highlights the inherent horror of puppet work through Pupkin’s story. This connection between possession, lack of agency, and the act of ventriloquism makes for some of the most terrifying passages of the book. Some readers might argue that these connections aren’t new in horror storytelling. However, Hendrix’s decision to let the haunting ramifications of puppetry resonate with the theme of a family history pulling the strings makes for an emotionally satisfying story.

If How to Sell a Haunted House has a weakness, it’s in its predictability. At some point in the story, you realize how the rest of the tale will be spun. Indeed, after I reached that point, many of the predictions I made while reading along came to pass. This is especially true if you happen to have a decent grasp of sub-genre conventions. In that sense, the novel feels satisfactory but not revelatory. Haunted houses and dolls make up some of the most common tropes in horror stories. At some point, it becomes exceptionally difficult to spin the story in a way people have never seen before.

Nevertheless, at the very least, the novel provides complete characters and a well-done variation on the haunted doll. How to sell works especially well as we reflect on the holidays filled with uncompromising and difficult family members. What better catharsis, really, than beating up an evil little puppet?