How to Sell a Haunted House is horror writer Grady Hendrix’s newest novel, about a woman who returns home after her parents’ death and is faced with a lot more than she bargained for. The sudden death of her parents throws Louise—she has to leave her young daughter Poppy with her ex and travel back to Charleston, where she has to deal with her estrange brother Mark, who she’s always seen as getting anything from their parents that he wanted. She wants them to sell the house and then she can get away, but first they have to deal with the house and everything in it, including their mother’s extensive puppet collection.
I love the high concept nature of Hendrix’s books, but sometimes the concept overshadows the book a bit. In the case of this one, the concept is actually a much smaller part of the book than it might seem, and the heart of the story is a creepy story of puppets, grief, and family secrets. The start sets up a fraught family situation between Louise and Mark, driven not just by their parents’ deaths but by the conflicting views of each other they hold. As the unnerving horror starts to trickle in to the plot, so do the revelations that their family has been hiding things and that not talking about things does not mean they did not happen that way.
The bizarre horror of some of the book (evil puppets mostly) sits strangely well with the deep sadness that also underpins it: the ways in which people deal with emotion, misunderstand each other, and resent things they cannot make sense of. The central puppet seems to find people when they need it, aka when they’re emotionally vulnerable and looking for something else to take control of their life, and both Louise and Mark react to events in the book by doubling down on who they think they are, haunted maybe by what they do to cope. A point later in the book after Mark and Louise have been through something horrific, shows how horror sometimes misses out the part afterwards where what someone had to do in the heat of the terrifying moment still has terrible consequences.
How to Sell a Haunted House is not at its core a haunted house book (see The Haunting of Hill House, Tell Me I’m Worthless, and the YouTube video ‘Control, Anatomy, and the Legacy of the Haunted House’ for interesting ideas about what a haunted house might be), but it is a creepy puppet book and a family grief book. It has the ridiculousness of Hendrix’s work combined with some tense emotion as two siblings work through their lives and why their family is the way it is. Some people may be disappointed that the title is seemingly purposefully misleading, but what you get instead is a look at family being more of the ‘haunted house’ than a house ever could.