Louise is a single mom with a five-year-old daughter, working a steady design job in San Francisco as far away from her hometown of Charleston as possible. Things are going fine—maybe not always amazing, but fine. However, when she receives a call from her estranged brother Mark telling her that their parents have died unexpectedly, she must return to her childhood home to settle their affairs. Her academic father and arts-and-crafts obsessed puppeteer mother left behind a house stuffed with stuff, but as she and Mark squabble over wills and estates and funeral arrangements, it becomes clear that the house contains something more sinister than the inanimate detritus of long life.
A suspicious tableau implying her parents fled the house in a hurry on the night of their accident, for one thing. Unresolved sibling relationship fallout, for another. And the cherry on top, an entire house full of dolls, puppets, and taxidermy squirrels whose stares feel strangely heavy. Louise and Mark will have to deal with each other, their childhood traumas, and the mess their parents left behind—before it’s too late.
I’ve been aware of Grady Hendrix for a while. The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires has been patiently waiting on my (heinous, unmanageable) “to read” stack since release, and friends from all across the readerly spectrum have sung its praises. Somehow, though, aside from short pieces, How to Sell a Haunted House is the first thing I’ve read by Hendrix—and I had so much fun!
The novel reminded me of the frenetic, compulsive energy that propelled me through pulp horror paperbacks as a kid, except cleverly updated for a contemporary adult audience. And, of course, that’s an effect intentionally crafted by Hendrix. Even if I didn’t already know he’d written extensively on horror fiction through the ’70s and ’80s, it would be obvious he adored the genre enough to dissect, examine, and deliciously remix all the things that made those older books tick. His prose has a certain quickness, a seeming-translucence that belies how much emotional interiority the lines carry. For example, there is a mild but notable style shift as we go from Louise-strictly-controlling-herself-at-all-times to the Louise who’s beginning to sift through her childhood trauma and reconnect with Mark over their shared experiences.
Hendrix’s prose is often, at the same time, downright hilarious. There’s a paragraph wherein Mark is telling Louise about joining a radical puppet collective in college and crafting penis missiles for the Radical Fairies:
“…they were making dicks. Big ones, three to four feet long, then smaller ones that looked like they were built around paper-towel tubes. They had them hanging from the back porch roof like wind chimes, slathering them with papier-mâché, looking like salamis made out of newsprint, which was a relief because I’m not sure I could have handled it if they’d been painted and looked like actual dicks yet. I wasn’t that cool.”
The comedic effect builds through the lines until the simplicity of “I wasn’t that cool” hits—and I sure did laugh. The moments of humor lighten the intense bursts of horror, violence, and fright that otherwise drive the plot forward; they also reconfigure our initial ideas about Mark and Louise as people, the more information about them we uncover.
And then we get to the scare-factor.
Full disclosure, if you’d told me this book was going to be about an evil puppet as opposed to a traditional haunted house… I might not have picked it up. (A veritable legion of queer Chucky fans are booing me right this instant, but sorry y’all, haunted dolls aren’t my jam.) The thing is, I’d have missed out on something really enjoyable if I’d skipped over it! Hendrix gathers the old familiar tropes, the spooky cabinets full of dolls whose eyes follow you and the toys that seem to move on their own, the nightmare-logic of wrestling with a child’s puppet that can still overpower you, and does something fresh with them instead. As one of the radical puppeteers says to young Mark, “A puppet is a possession that possesses the possessor.”
Major spoilers follow.
How to Sell a Haunted House ultimately orients around possession. Whether it’s possession by strong emotions, traumatic memories, family secrets, or a fucked up hand-puppet, the heaviness of being acted on by forces bigger than oneself looms over Louise. The novel is, after all, sectioned out through the five stages of grief—and Louise struggles throughout her life managing what she believes to be possible mental illness (as opposed to an actual haunted house-slash-doll situation). I honestly adored Louise as a protagonist, and it’s often through her wonderfully human imperfections that Hendrix does his best disruption and remixing of horror genre norms. There is a sense in which this novel is queering those narrative expectations—the structures fans of pulp horror know to keep an eye out for. Let’s take three in particular that caught my attention: parenting-slash-family structures, the role of religion, and the “final girl.”
To start with the obvious: Louise makes an aside early on that makes it clear she dates men and women. She has also chosen to have a kid despite having zero interest in forming a traditional family unit around the guy she slept with. The rarity of a single mother protagonist in a horror novel, let alone one who isn’t being punished for that singleness, definitely struck me right off the bat… and so does her complicated relationship with her own parents. It’s loving but distant. She’s closer with her academic father, while her seemingly-deadbeat artsy brother is closer with their mother. Hendrix conveys Louise’s exhaustion over having to always be the grown-up, never getting to just be the one being taken care of, extremely well. The extended Southern family also plucks a nontraditional chord: there are so many aunties and cousins, some related and some not, to be found in Charleston.
When it comes to religion, in a book about haunted dolls and spooky houses in the south, I was bracing myself for annoyance when churchiness and “prayer” came up as a solution for the Pupkin problem. As with all those movies and books inspired by the Warrens, American horror as a whole tends to lean on the “Christian theology is real” side, which is… shall we say, off-putting to someone with a whole mountain of bad experiences involving that theology. Hendrix proved me wrong again, though, by also flipping that script: though much of Louise’s family is religious, the “prayer” circle over her daughter Poppy ends up being more of a séance, revealing the puppet is actually housing the spirit of their mother’s dead little brother. The scene sets the reader up with the usual expectations—and then swerves right around them.
In a similar act of deconstruction-and-remixing, Louise does lots of the things we expect from a “final girl” in her battle with the possessed-by-a-puppet Mark as he tries to murder her. Ultimately, though, what’s required to end the haunting isn’t her singular will triumphing against a big scary monster. It’s teamwork with her brother, communication with her kid, and prying ugly family secrets out to lay a dead child to rest with tenderness. Plus, Louise is a grown-ass adult woman, and the novel never lets us forget that.
Honestly, it’s a hell of a spin on the expected story, given we’ve also seen bloody nastiness like “needle through the eye” and “dismemberment with a garage saw.” The novel as a whole ends up rejecting the “heterosexual marriage with one mom, one dad, two kids, and a white picket fence saves the day” answer—I’m looking at you, Mike Flanagan—instead suggesting that a strange hodgepodge of two previously estranged siblings, some cousins, a kid, and their childhood imaginary monsterdog can create a family together through hard emotional work. And I’m all for that.
How to Sell a Haunted House concludes on solid footing, with a sense of hope that doesn’t ignore the long-term effects of pain and grief. The ghost of Freddie, haunting the family and the Pupkin doll for two generations, has been gently dispatched on a journey towards the “end” of all things… but Louise and Mark aren’t going to un-lose their parents. Their bodies have also been harmed, and Mark must now navigate a new disability. But in the last two paragraphs, Hendrix wraps up by acknowledging that though loss comes back fresh some nights, painful as ever, Louise and Mark can support each other through their shared trauma—and that communal support is what humans need to heal. The novel is at once pulp horror fun and a thoughtful exploration of family dynamics, and I seriously enjoyed it.
How to Sell a Haunted House is published by Berkeley Books.
Lee Mandelo (he/they) is a writer, critic, and occasional editor whose fields of interest include speculative and queer fiction–especially where the two coincide. Summer Sons, their spooky gay debut novel, was recently published by Tordotcom, with other stories featuring in magazines like Uncanny and Nightmare. Aside from a brief stint overseas, Lee has spent their life ranging across Kentucky, currently living in Lexington and pursuing a PhD in Gender Studies at the University of Kentucky.