Even before I saw the now-iconic film “Child’s Play” in 1988, I wasn’t fond of dolls or puppets. Sinister dolls had appeared in movies and television shows long before Chucky arrived on the scene, including in 1978’s “Magic” with Anthony Hopkins and in episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Fantasy Island.” More recently, Slappy, the ventriloquist dummy mascot of the Goosebumps franchise, led to a few sleepless nights for my youngest daughter — and, as a result, for me, too.
Let’s face it: creepy dolls are a trope of the horror genre. But they’re a trope for a reason. Why? Because dolls are creepy! Just ask folks with pediophobia (fear of dolls or inanimate objects that look real) or pupaphobia (fear of puppets and marionettes). Being weirded out by dolls has something to do with how humans perceive faces, and how our brains distinguish a someone from a something. There is just something deeply unsettling about a realistic, human-like object that comes close to but is not quite human.
This freaky terrain is what fascinates Grady Hendrix in his new novel, How to Sell a Haunted House. Hendrix is the bestselling author of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires and The Final Girl Support Group, and his homage to the “cursed doll” trope here is reminiscent of his homage to the “final girl” trope in his last novel.
Early in How to Sell a Haunted House, single mother Louise Joyner learns that her parents have died in a car accident not far from her childhood home just outside of Charleston, South Carolina. She leaves her young daughter Poppy in San Francisco with Poppy’s father to attend her parents’ funeral and make arrangements for their estate. Returning home to Charleston, however, is fraught with unpleasantness, as she must deal not only with her irresponsible younger brother Mark to sell their parents’ house but also sort through her mother’s extensive (yes… and creepy!) doll and puppet collection. Her mother had been an obsessive lifetime collector and crafter of dolls and puppets.
Soon after Louise arrives, strange things start happening. Louise realizes that her parents seem to have been in a rush when they left the house on the night of their accident. Her father’s cane, which he needed to walk, was left behind, as was a hammer, which lay on the floor beside her dad’s easy chair. The attic hatch is boarded up, but for what reason? And her mother’s dolls seem to have become avid viewers of the Home Shopping Network.
Hendrix is a master of suspense. Things are just a bit “off” before they ratchet up and the wheels fall off the bus entirely. The horror is demonic and paranormal, but also psychological. “You don’t wear the puppet. The puppet wears you,” Mark says in a flashback that he narrates about his college days. And, in the words of Mark’s friend Clark, “Every puppeteer knows that when they wear a puppet it’s live, like a grenade with the pin pulled.”
Parts of the story are indeed terrifying. I’ll never get over the picture Hendrix paints of a puppet “throwing himself through the black gap between the open closet doors, fabric body hunched low to the ground, scurrying directly for the bed on his stubby arms and legs.” What child hasn’t had a similar fear, a similar nightmare? What child hasn’t entertained the thought that her stuffed animals think and feel as she does? This is primal stuff.
Still, the horror is of the fun house variety, and mirthful in its brutality and bloodshed. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny. At one point Louise says dismissively to Mark, “This is where we grew up. It’s not ‘The Shining.’” “It’s Shining-adjacent,” Mark replies. Yes, the tone is chilling, but it is also charming. How can a book that introduces me to “radical puppet collectives” and mobile-home-based demon deactivation rituals not elicit a chuckle? I mean, a golem made entirely out of dolls and puppets? Come on! The movie practically writes itself.
What elevates the story for me is its backbone, its undercurrent of intergenerational grief, its heart. The Joyners have been hurt, and they are hurting still. I know this is important, because Hendrix divides his book into sections labeled with Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “Five Stages of Grief”: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. To heal, one must leave denial and reach acceptance. One must process one’s trauma.
But don’t worry. You won’t find a scholarly treatise on death and dying in How to Sell a Haunted House. It’s a good old-fashioned ghost story. A gothic thrill ride. The twists and turns will keep you guessing — and delightfully off-kilter the whole time.
How to Sell a Haunted House
By Grady Hendrix
Published January 17, 2023