HOW TO SELL A HAUNTED HOUSE, by Grady Hendrix
Grady Hendrix’s horror novels are a gateway drug to the genre, bridging the warm and cozy — book clubs, female support groups, undying friendships, sibling rivalries and lots of home cooking — with the harder stuff. He’s explored vampires and exorcisms, the trauma of surviving a serial killer, recombinant demons and now, in perhaps his greatest creation, a haunted puppet named Pupkin.
When her parents die unexpectedly, Louise — a single mother living in San Francisco who has spent her adult life fleeing a family that “functions on secrets” — returns to Charleston for the funeral, where she has agreed to help her deadbeat brother Mark sell their childhood home.
But when she arrives, something seems very wrong. The house, permeated by a weird vibe, feels “off,” especially the living room, which is packed with hundreds of her mom Nancy’s creepy dolls — clown dolls, German dolls, life-size dolls; “a swarm of dolls stared through the glass doors of the doll cabinet.”
While this coterie of babies is unnerving enough, the real horror begins when Louise finds Nancy’s favorite puppet, Pupkin, sitting in an easy chair in front of the TV watching the Home Shopping Network. A song Louise hasn’t heard in years suddenly begins playing in her head: “Pupkin here! Pupkin here! Everybody laugh! Everybody cheer!”
The nightmarish Pupkin, a “red-and-yellow glove puppet with two stumpy fabric legs dangling down from his front and two little nubbin arms” as well as “a leering clown face” was Nancy’s oldest friend, her sole childhood companion after the tragic death of her brother Freddie, and later a fixture of Louise and Mark’s upbringing. Nancy parented through Pupkin, learning ventriloquism so Pupkin could tell the children bedtime stories; the puppet remained Nancy’s emotional crutch even after her children were grown.
“I’ve known this little guy for a long time,” Nancy told Louise when she found her mother having breakfast with Pupkin years before. “You and your brother grew up and went off to school. Your dad goes to work. But Pupkin is always here.”
The haunted doll or puppet is an archetype of the horror genre, as ancient as the Golem and as contemporary as Annabelle, but Hendrix has created a wholly original creature in Pupkin, one as iconic as Chuckie or Pennywise. Like Pennywise, Pupkin represents the losses of growing up. He’s the vehicle of an unfulfilled mother’s pain, her regrets and loneliness. He’s childhood trauma incarnate, delivered from one generation to the next.
He’s also scary as hell, with all the sly traits of a vindictive, psychopathic sibling, one who will kill for parental love. Pupkin uses every method at his disposal — mind control is his favorite — to eliminate his rivals. In a tense, gruesome, masterfully timed scene, he takes control of Mark (“Mark gone, Pupkin now”) and tries to attack Louise with a hammer.
“Mark shrieked but really Pupkin shrieked because she had never heard a human throat make a sound like that before,” one that “drove itself into her ears like ice picks.”
By weaving violence, family trauma and humor, Hendrix creates a texture that engages the reader emotionally and viscerally. When Pupkin attaches himself to her daughter (literally affixing himself to one of her hands), Louise decides to stuff the puppet into her Vitamix blender, “add water to soften him up, then switch it on high and grind him into a slurry.” Hendrix cuts to a paragraph about how Louise bought the blender on a whim and failed all attempts at juicing. The juxtaposition of the everyday and unthinkable creates a surprising response: This, you think as you read, could happen to anyone.
Hendrix’s humor is also on display in one of my favorite scenes of the novel. Barb, “an expert on cursed dolls,” takes a shot at dealing with Pupkin. While Barb initially thinks the family is dealing with a demonic possession, she soon realizes that there may be other forces to contend with. No big deal. Barb has seen it all. “I do dolls, I do puppets, I once even did a blowup s-e-x doll. Now, that one was wild, let me tell you. Come on inside and let’s pray together.”
Earlier, Louise dismissed the possibility that her childhood home was possessed. “If the house was haunted, it was haunted by memories, by old fights, by Mark’s unresolved stuff with their mom and dad.” No more. Pupkin has made Louise a believer: “Four weeks ago I was a product designer with a child and now I’m going to fight my mom’s puppet with a shovel.” In Grady Hendrix’s gripping, wildly entertaining exploration of childhood horrors, such surprising transformations are possible.
HOW TO SELL A HAUNTED HOUSE, by Grady Hendrix | 432 pp. | Berkley | $28