Louise Joyner left home as soon as she could, fleeing the humidity of Charleston, South Carolina, for a career in industrial design in Silicon Valley. Her brother, Mark, stayed put, his meandering and dysfunctional lifestyle patronized to his face and savaged in his absence by his family, as is so often the case with mildly disappointing scions of good Southern families. But now, Louise and Mark must figure out what to do with the relics of their recently departed parents’ lives: their father’s idiosyncratic economics research, their mother’s vast collection of Christian puppets and their house. However, some revenants will not go quietly into that good night. There are burdens this family has politely buried for far too long, and the Joyners are about to discover that some hauntings are neither stagecraft nor hellspawn. Some hauntings are homemade.
Author Grady Hendrix is a Charleston native, and How to Sell a Haunted House completely nails its Lowcountry setting. This reviewer is also a South Carolinian and can confirm that neither the idea of a Christian puppet ministry nor the actual Fellowship of Christian Puppeteers are made up. The depiction of Carolina culture is also accurate, especially Hendrix’s portrayal of how someone who grew up in it, left and then came back would perceive it: familiar and peculiar, unsettling and comforting, prompting a reckoning with how deeply strange its version of normal truly is. Hendrix only departs from this reality in one way: In no gauzy South Carolina summer that I can recall did the knickknacks acquire a vengeful sentience and wreak havoc on the strained psyches of a family’s prodigal offspring.
How to Sell a Haunted House effectively marries tropes ripped straight from the pages of a midcentury pulp magazine to a Pat Conroy-esque chronicle of Lowcountry generational trauma. Families are warm and lovely but also stifling, just like the summers; rituals are banal but also sacred, their violation the gravest of transgressions; and there are always skeletons (or puppets) in the sewing closets. How to Sell a Haunted House may be a heightened tale of horror, but it is built on something true. And it’s a lot of fun, as well.