Friday, January 13, 2023

Book Review: How to Sell a Haunted House

By Jami Denison

It seems hard to believe, but some states actually require homeowners to disclose whether a house is haunted before selling it. As a real estate agent myself, I’ve had buyers complain when a roof leaked after a sale—it wasn’t on the disclosure. A leaking roof is easy enough to prove. But how does one prove that a house is haunted…. Or that the ghosts didn’t arrive with the new family? How to Sell a Haunted House unfortunately isn’t a how-to guide for Realtors; we are currently haunted by interest rates edging up to seven percent and could use all the help we can get. Rather, southern gothic author Grady Hendrix’s third book shows that everyone is a little haunted, and family secrets are the worst ghosts of all.

When Louise’s elderly parents are killed in a car crash, she leaves her five-year-old daughter with her ex and travels back to her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina to plan the funeral and deal with her family home. The house, which had once been her grandparents’, is stuffed with the dolls and puppets from her mother’s shows, including Mom’s favorite, Pupkin. Compounding Louise’s grief, she’s forced to deal with her younger brother Mark, a drunk who’s been bailed out by her mother his whole life. Even worse, there’s definitely something wrong in the house—the TV keeps turning on; the dolls are never where Louise left them. And what caused her parents to bolt in the middle of the night, leading to their deaths? 

Hendrix begins the story with a sly bit of foreshadowing: a tip of the hat to The Velveteen Rabbit, the children’s book that declares that love makes toys real. Louise hates the book; as a child, it terrified her. The story simmers over the first several chapters, and the author’s voice, closer to southern women’s fiction than horror, also keeps the early action focused on the characters and the drama around the parents’ deaths. When the scary things start to happen, the reader is completely in Louise’s corner, even after Mark reveals something horrible about his older sister.

What is it about dolls, clowns, and puppets that make them such great fodder for horror? The faces that look human, the empty eyes… on the other hand, it’s easy to tip into camp with the description of small cloth toys holding knives or other weapons. And there were a few scenes in Haunted that made me laugh. Overall, though, the book is mesmerizing, with a tantalizing mix of family drama, secrets, and the supernatural that kept me turning pages all night long. The relationship between Louise and Mark is the spine of the book, and any reader who has an older sister or who has been one will recognize those dynamics. And there’s a third act twist that will leave readers gasping.

Hendrix uses foreshadowing, symbolism, set-ups, repeating motifs and other literary devices to transcend genre and create a book that is a master class for other writers.  How to Sell a Haunted House might not be a handbook for Realtors, but it would be a great conversation piece at an open house!  

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Grady Hendrix:

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