REVIEW: How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

Last Updated on January 16, 2023

There’s always something odd about the lifeless stares of dolls collecting dust in an empty, seemingly average American home. Soulless monsters, very typically, come to mind. For the horror storyteller of southern vamps and haunted IKEA furniture, dolls are the weird, perfectly intentional, subject to scare all readers. In the tradition of horror movies, How to Sell a Haunted House starts with a phone call and a death. A single mother, anxious about leaving her only child, mourns her parents after a very long, tense coronavirus pandemic, and returns to the home she wants to forget.

Cover for How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady HendrixWith all her relatives, whom all agree her family is the weirdest of the group, Louise begrudgingly celebrates the Jim Henson-styled funeral with middle-aged women dressed in fairy wings and ushers in pineapple-print dresses. In the childhood home of Mark and Louise are all their family memories and a fluffy promise of inheritance, along with an extremely grim sibling rivalry. Now, empty silence fills the dusty house post the suspicious car accident. All the “junk” of memories, as Louise says, is populated with the eerie silence of dolls, giving the whole house a haunted feeling.

Emotionally and very physically, the house is haunted by their childhood dolls and puppets. One, in particular, is named Pupkin, a puppet with a taste for blood and revenge. Louise’s anger towards her mother becomes the source Pupkin used to manipulate her when she was a child. He was the voice in her head, putting the darkest rage within a frustrated child. Now, an adult, Louise convinces herself and others that those horrible memories are just that. Imagined, inaccurate memories that hold no truth to reality. It’s this which causes the rift between her and Mark, whom Louise perceives as the overly dramatic, lazy grown child their mother always preferred. That’s the thing, though. Memories can be funny, especially when manipulated by traumatic puppets.

Noises actually start going bump in the night, a feral taxidermied squirrel among them. Facing the haunted house, the only conclusion these siblings come to is that in order to sell it, they need to stop covering things up and face their past. Sounds fun. But, as with most families with oodles of bad history, the monstrous puppets get creepier with every uncovered memory.

I loved how intense the feeling of eerie silence is, which amped up with one of the most horrifying puppets I’ve read. It’s amazingly disturbing to watch very real, normal people and their complicated feelings get attacked by an object from their childhood. It’s exactly the type of thing a horror author inspired by the 80s would do. I appreciate the levels Hendrix went to give me those ‘the puppets are alive’ feelings.

Those Freudian memories that Mark and Louise inherited from their mother become a theme of depression, mental health, and family history. The real horror in How to Sell a Haunted House. Childhood memories are often put into childhood toys, which so commonly become an escape from reality into something more comfortable. Hendrix, very clearly, wrote these siblings as intentionally unlikeable people. The most interesting part of this book, for me, was Mark and Louise’s past. The characters that are most interesting are real people with very honest family problems. Louise’s emotional complexity is pulled by losing her mother and father, which Hendrix centers around being targeted by “the forces of darkness,” as her Aunt Gail says. That “How did you get like this” aspect of the story interested me over everything else, including the murderous puppet.

While it’s not necessary to like the characters for me to like a book, there are some other issues that prevented How to Sell a Haunted House from becoming a more enjoyable read. Readers should know that even though what Mark and Louise go through are achingly relatable, they are not set up to be moral standards of humanity. And that’s what makes it such a deep book. They often do and say awful things, which many readers will not like depending on their reading preferences. I tend to prefer morally grey, complicated characters. They are endlessly fascinating to me. Over the course of How to Sell a Haunted House, Hendrix maintains these intense emotional moments, where characters genuinely struggle with their traumatic memories. The tone sets the novel into a very serious horror novel, dealing with very complex issues of memory and family conflict. So it makes it very difficult to take these real issues seriously when a little haunted puppet singsongs things like “…playPLAYplayPLAYplay…” It completely shatters the mood, detaching me from a closer emotional understanding of the characters. In particular, it’s hard to laugh at people terrorized by demonic puppets when you’re focusing on such important mental health issues. Some authors are able to successfully meet that balance, but the tone is really important here. I liked reading this book, but even with what I did like this book is noticeably off-tone and the main plot meanders a bit.

With that criticism in mind, Grimdark fans may enjoy this weird dark tale. Discover bliss in strange horror, hellish family secrets, morally grey siblings, and characters who eat curses for breakfast. How to Sell a Haunted House is gleefully coated in chaos, terror, and screaming puppets.

Read How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

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Brigid Flanagan

Brigid Flanagan

Brigid spends her life searching the deep, dark world of words and storytelling. She spends her time thinking about folklore, mythology, lyrical sagas, and a mixture of all types of romantic legendary tales. They review @thefantasyinn and have written for media outlets on anything having to do with bookish content and nerdy fandom.

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