“These stuffed animals were how she had first learned to love something that couldn’t always love you back.
In How to Sell a Haunted House, Grady Hendrix has turned the banal and the ordinary into something existentially terrifying. This is Hendrix’s modus operandi. Often, the most mundane things: an IKEA shopping store, book clubs, one’s best friend, or the idea of a family home in his hands, turn twisted, greasy, full of spikes and tendrils, patiently waiting to dig its way into the mind of his helpless readers. Grady Hendrix writes the best horrors.
“wishing harder than she’d ever wished before that for just sixty seconds someone would hold her, but no one holds moms.”
One of the overarching features of Hendrix’s stories is the flawed characters. People are imperfect, gray in emotions and deeds, sometimes heroic, and other times cowardly. Unless you seek a novel where the good is always good, and the evil is easy to spot, stories and characters are complex three-dimensional creations. As a reader, horror is more effective when I can empathize or am repulsed by characters past their inherent “goodness” or “badness.” Hendrix capitalizes on the grayness of characters to effectively tell his stories.
The premise of How to Sell a Haunted House is that Louise’s parents have died. Louise, a mom, has had to leave her child with her ex to travel to Charleston to tie up familial loose ends. One of the loose ends is her childhood home, her father, an academic, and her mother, a woman obsessed with dolls and puppetry. They both loved and knew her best, and the raw pain and emotional deadness from losing a parent are shown well. It feels like Louise has been scooped out emotionally, but she still has to go on living, making decisions, and dealing with what is left of her family, her brother Mark. Mark has his own battles to fight. While Louise left, he stayed, and there is contempt there.
“But she didn’t have a choice. She would have to handle whatever happened. There was no such thing as too much. There was just more and more, and her limits didn’t matter. Life didn’t care. She could only hang on.”
As it turns out, selling the house and dealing with their crumbled relationship will be much more complicated and terrifying than either thought.
There is something unnerving about dolls. It could be because they represent us and who we think we are or the uncanny valley effect, which is the reaction to how human an object looks while not being quite right. Often, it involves revulsion and unease. Some stories capitalize on this trait, Like Annabelle and Chucky. On the one hand, they are toys, harmless objects of play and joy; on the other hand, there is something not quite right about Annabelle. Hendrix took this idea and turned it up to 11. Puppetry is creepy, generally. But obsession and puppetry are so much worse. Think puppets in every room, hanging from the ceiling, their strings lightly brushing your face as you walk under them, their glass eyes staring at you but not seeing. Eyes, everywhere. Hendrix probably sat back in smug satisfaction at the horror practically dripping off the pages.
“This is where we grew up. It’s not The Shining.” “It’s Shining-adjacent,” Mark said in the gloom.”
Now take those puppets, eyes everywhere, and give them life. Stick them in a house and put two broken people in there with them. The puppets are unhappy with Louise and Mark’s choices; they have access to tools, their teeth, knives, and a propensity for mischief. Voila, How to Sell a Haunted House.
It is shocking how scary How to Sell a Haunted House is. It isn’t one thing, but the combination of writing, characters, dolls, and atmospheric worldbuilding that creates a sense of malice and revulsion on every page. And it only builds as the book nears the last third. Is this my favorite Hendrix book? It’s hard to say; they are all different and well done, but this one is the most atmospheric.
“Louise tried to think of how to explain death to a puppet.”
Read this novel if you are looking for a frightening time, hate puppets, or want to immerse yourself in a Hendrix world. It is worth the scare and the time to read it. God, I hate puppets.