The home of a person who’s recently died is, for their left-behind loved ones, a bizarre excavation site. The process of inheriting, cataloging, and even disposing of the property of someone who was only just recently living with all of those things is gut-wrenching, and often deeply spooky. There’s a reason inheritance often has a role to play in haunted house narratives: When it comes to a death in the family, even the least supernatural places on Earth feel haunted for a little while.
Grady Hendrix comes into his latest novel, How to Sell a Haunted House, with a clear grasp of this idea, and of the sense of excavation and discovery that comes from suddenly being burdened with everything your loved ones have left behind. For Hendrix, one of our finest modern horror novelists, it’s fertile ground for his own riff on a haunted house story, but in this tale of ghostly happenings and creepy objects, the human drama at the core of it all is often even scarier than the supernatural.
Louise and Mark are siblings who don’t get along, and that tension carries through to the sudden and tragic death of their parents. Louise, the sibling who went out into the world and built a life on the other side of the country, returns home to find Mark—the sibling who stayed close to home and stumbled through a series of personal and professional ventures which never seemed to play out—already trying to take charge of funeral arrangements, estate management, and pretty much everything else. Determined to not be steamrolled by her brother, who usually got his way when it came to their parents, Louise steps up to take charge of the family home, packed to the rafters with mementos of their lives together and of their mother’s lifelong love of crafting her own puppets and dolls, which she often used to stage shows.
As Louise asserts her power and her own wishes for her parents’ legacy, it’s clear right away that Mark is going to make life difficult for her while she’s back home, but that’s not the only obstacle lurking in the house. Something else happened in the home where Louise and Mark grew up, something that might be tied to why their parents died, something with secrets that have roots deep in the family’s long-buried history.
As is so often the case with Hendrix’s work, all of this carries certain familiar subgenre trappings, from a sudden death in the family as the catalyst to a house full of creepy dolls (and one creepy doll in particular) to set the mood for what’s to come. Those trappings exist to remind you what kind of story you’re reading, and to create a certain atmosphere, but they’re also there so Hendrix can carefully, delicately, and thrillingly reinvent them to his own ends.
In How to Sell a Haunted House, that reinvention begins by rooting the story in something nearly all of us can relate to: Squabbling over an inheritance. Just as he did with The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires and My Best Friend’s Exorcism, Hendrix roots his horror in very real, very nerve-wrenching interpersonal drama.
Southern Book Club was about one woman feeling estranged from her community, while Exorcism followed a teen girl who couldn’t understand what her friend was becoming in the midst of high school. In Haunted House, that same careful attention to character is focused on two siblings who each think they knew their parents better than the other, and who each believe they’re the one who understands what’s best for the family now. Because Hendrix gets this so well, and his suspenseful prose is still in fine form, the moments of tension between Louise and Mark early in the novel are often just as taut and powerful as the terror which comes later.
And yes, the terror does come later, in powerful, unforgettable waves of violence, supernatural phenomena, and often heartbreaking truths about what’s really going on in the family home now that Mark and Louise’s parents are gone. Hendrix has made a career out of exploring and dissecting classic horror tropes while still delivering all the scary goods associated with said tropes, and things are no different here. Every time you think How to Sell a Haunted House can’t get more jaw-dropping, along comes the author with another reveal, another left turn that’s at once shocking and right at home within this narrative. It’s a pulse-pounding exercise in pure horror drive that never loses sight of its emotional core, and that makes it quintessential Hendrix.
So, whether you’re a longtime Grady Hendrix fan or a newcomer to his work, How to Sell a Haunted House has emerged as one of 2023’s first essential horror novels.
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.