When The Puppets Come Out to Play

Author: Grady Hendrix

The Joyners had the appearance of a happy, successful family, but death often reveals the greatest sins, the most hidden regrets. Their life was no exception.

When Louise gets the call that her parents have died in a car crash, she knows that she must confront more than loss and red tape. She is now forced to work with her jealous, immature brother, thanks to the strictures of the will. She must leave her distraught daughter with her manipulative ex. She must face a house filled with her mother’s ministry: puppets made from every material, of every hue, used to teach lessons, to evoke an imaginary space, to define her childhood years and to embarrassingly, eerily haunt her adulthood. Buried beneath all this detritus of a lifetime, one frozen moment remains: an uneaten sandwich, an obviously hectic struggle to leave. Now what remains is a messy house, a testament to the brutal, abrupt ending of time. Louise must confront everything she is, everything her family has ever done as she works with her brother to prepare her parent’s house for sale. If the puppets’ eyes follow her, if something skitters in the attic, if the smell of takeout evokes the facsimilia of a happy family hiding secrets, it’s only the beginning. What Louisa and Mark will uncover is just as whimsical and violent as their shared childhood, just as timeless as sibling rivalry and the corrupted innocence of a faded puppet with button eyes.

To be honest, I’m not a Hendrix fan, although I’ve read quite a few of his books. I first came to his quirky, horror pop-culture mashup through a book club choice: The Final Girl Support Group. I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t fully resonate with me either. I hardly care (or honestly, understand) pop culture, and I like my horror more straight up, less darkly comic with dashes of irony. But . . . my book club feels otherwise, and I am nothing if not pedantic. So, I sighed and picked up How to Sell a Haunted House with the intention of reading it, neither loving nor hating it, writing a blasé review, and finally shoving it into my Little Free Library. I was pleasantly surprised then that the tainted magic of this weird tale actually captured me.

The story here, with all its haunted puppets, creepy dolls, and home taxidermy projects gone rouge, is more about emotion than the felted things that go bump (and stab, stab, stab) in the night. The story captured me with its bittersweet nostalgia, the longings and silent, accusing despair of an older daughter facing mortality and the loss of her parents. The relationships are complicated. Louise has always been ashamed of her parents’ seeming eccentricities, but now that she is older, a parent herself, she is more inclined to see her own faults and desperately misses the two people she never expected to lose. It’s a grim fate, an awakening that is all too real. Louise’s trouble with her elder brother continues to force us to explore the realistic mess of untimely death, wills, greedy families, and hidden agendas. It’s hard not to get involved, to watch the oscillating emotions and shudder from the poignant mess, the reality, the despicable nature of humanity.

By the time the eerie puppets show up, we’re emotionally invested in this tangle. Neither Louise nor Mark are perfect. We at turns empathize with them and at turns hate them, judging them almost as much as they judge one another and the imperfect parents whose only earthly reminder is a collection of moldering, evil puppets.

And speaking about evil puppets: yes, it’s stupid. Utterly ridiculous, true Hendrix out-of-left-field, lets-make-fun-of-this-genre absurdity. But, somehow, it was scary. Somehow it worked. I think that was because before we got to the weirdness of the story, we had a foot in reality, a sad and tragic one that resonated, sometimes too closely. By the time things got creepy and then went from creepy to bat-shit insane, we were onboard. We believed in the people, and so the puppets were no extra logical jump. Especially because they had their own depth of meaning, their own growing understanding of forgiveness and regret and neediness and the desire to carve something out of empty nothing. It’s deep in a totally bizarre way, admittedly, but more thoughtful than you would expect. Of course, the puppets are still trying to kill Louise and Mark, because come on, it’s not ALL intellectual (or even, really, mostly.) Whatever, I dug it. I cared. I put down other books and frantically turned pages, wondering how I’d found myself on the Hendrix bandwagon and then decided that I didn’t care because I just needed to read more, until I had an answer.

Image by Veronica Bosley from Pixabay

The only moment that didn’t resonate is one of convenient imagination, one that is used to make a miraculous last-minute recovery / dodge to save the day. I can’t give full details because that would be a serious spoiler. Suffice it to say that it involves an imaginary dog that in no way whatsoever is justified. I mean, yes, we accept these sentient, living, decidedly evil puppets because despite the absurdity there is a structured “why” behind the mystery that makes a perverted kind of sense. But the dog – no, that’s just sloppy deus ex machina. Must do better.

How to Sell a Haunted House did not end up in my Little Free Library. It stayed on my shelf. It was atmospheric, a little too comic at times, but still good, with a tragic ending that spoke more about humanity than it did evil dolls killing people. The focus was on the characters, what they learned, what the puppets symbolized, the meaning of happy families and the devastation of secrets and dishonesty and a lifetime of lies and half-truths. This thought behind an otherwise outlandish plot gave it all meaning and kept the funny wackiness from going too off the wall. In the end, the story was just as mesmerizing as the haunted eyes of those silent puppets, staring out of the staticky dark. Part sad, part insanely creative. Highly recommended and by a Hendrix skeptic no less!

– Frances Carden

Follow my reviews on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/xombie_mistress

Follow my reviews on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/FrancesReviews

Frances Carden
Latest posts by Frances Carden (see all)