How to Sell a Haunted House
It’s nice when writers find their niche. For Grady Hendrix, it’s a certain form of literary horror novel, and he’s pursued his muse through such film-rights favorites as Horrorstör, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, and The Final Girl Support Group. And now, from this prolific author, we have another worthy entry in the genre, How to Sell a Haunted House. It’s no how-to guide.
The South Carolina brick ranch in question belongs to siblings Louise and Mark Joyner, who inherit it when their parents are killed in a car crash. Louise has a settled life in San Francisco with her daughter, Poppy (whose dad is largely out of the picture), and the last thing she wants to do is rush across the country and plunge back into her Southern Gothic family’s multiple melodramas. But the return of the prodigal daughter to a dreaded hometown is a popular trope on which many plots are hung.
Louise’s highly opinionated mother, Nancy Joyner, was a lot—she filled the house with puppets and dolls, then took them on the road for Christian-themed church tours. A chronic hobbyist, she built Meow Meow, Flossy Bossypants, Pizzaface, Sister Whimsical, Danny the Imagination Dragon, and more. The star of the lot was Pupkin, a hand puppet whose adventures in the Tickytoo Woods were the backdrop of Louise and Mark’s childhood.
Louise’s plan is to empty the house of Nancy’s many homemade creations (including a manger scene involving dead squirrels), sell the place, and quickly return to California with a nice nest egg for Poppy. But Mark, still moping around their hometown after dropping out of Boston University, has other plans.
There are a couple things going on, one of them a family story with unraveling secrets, and the other a Grand Guignol horror tale with plenty of Night of the Living Dead-style ultra-violence. Louise gradually comes to realize that her long-set idea of her childhood—starring Louise the good girl and Mark the eternal screw-up—was inaccurate on many counts. Brother and sister may come to some kind of hard-love détente, but they battle each other every step of the way. The siblings’ Southern family is large, perhaps too large for narrative coherence, and everyone takes a side and has an opinion.
Hendrix could have crafted a perfectly good novel out of just these elements, but as his wont the supernatural soon intrudes. Was Louise really attacked by the threadbare killer squirrels from the manger scene, which she thought had been safely confined to a garbage bag? And who keeps turning on the television—even when it’s unplugged—for an all-doll audience?
Most of all, what’s Pupkin, he of the “leering clown face" and “little nubbin arms,” up to exactly? He just refuses to go quietly. Pupkin is a direct descendant of Willy, the malevolent ventriloquist’s dummy in the very popular Twilight Zone episode #98. Willy gets locked into a trunk but, as you might guess, he doesn’t stay there. That one half hour of television could have been said to have inspired a whole genre, and the innumerable Chucky films are notable exemplars.
As Pupkin takes charge, he marshals a puppet-borne offensive against Louise and Mark, and things take a turn. The puppets may be little, but there is strength in numbers. Pupkin might not be wholly original, but he certainly has creepiness to spare. Maybe he can’t talk through his little painted face but if he gets on your hand you’re going to do the speaking for him: “Pupkin here! Pupkin here! Everybody laugh! Everybody cheer. . . . Pupkin’s here to play and play AND PLAY AND PLAY!”
Hendrix is very good at all this, even if it isn’t strictly original, and Louise and Mark are fully developed characters with a story arc and great dialogue. Mark may be an idiot, but he’s no dope. If the book has a flaw, it’s in the somewhat repetitive—and lengthy—scenes of brother and sister going back into their haunted house and battling the forces of bad puppetry. The reader is going to question their sanity for entering that horror ranch one more time. Joyners and dolls battle room-to-room. Louise, in particular, gets viciously attacked repeatedly but, like Wile E. Coyote after an encounter with the Road Runner, seems to need nothing more than a good dusting off.
Near the end, the inspiration becomes Sigourney Weaver in the 1979 Alien, as Pupkin latches on to Poppy and Louise battles for her daughter’s soul. Don’t think the little guy will give up easily—he’s quite resourceful. But will it all end up with a happy family and a “sold” sign out front of an exorcised South Carolina ranch? In the nastier genre tales, you just can’t keep a good puppet down. Otherwise, how could there be a sequel? But Disney would probably script it more benignly.