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How to Sell a Haunted House
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“Wildly entertaining.”-The New York Times
“Ingenious.”-The Washington Post
New York Times bestselling author Grady Hendrix takes on the haunted house in a thrilling new novel that explores the way your past–and your family–can haunt you like nothing else.
When Louise finds out her parents have died, she dreads going home. She doesn’t want to leave her daughter with her ex and fly to Charleston. She doesn’t want to deal with her family home, stuffed to the rafters with the remnants of her father’s academic career and her mother’s lifelong obsession with puppets and dolls. She doesn’t want to learn how to live without the two people who knew and loved her best in the world.
Most of all, she doesn’t want to deal with her brother, Mark, who never left their hometown, gets fired from one job after another, and resents her success. Unfortunately, she’ll need his help to get the house ready for sale because it’ll take more than some new paint on the walls and clearing out a lifetime of memories to get this place on the market.
But some houses don’t want to be sold, and their home has other plans for both of them…
Like his novels The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires and The Final Girl Support Group, How to Sell a Haunted House is classic Hendrix: equal parts heartfelt and terrifying–a gripping new read from “the horror master” (USA Today).
Louise thought it might not go well, so she told her parents she was pregnant over the phone, from three thousand miles away, in San Francisco. It wasn't that she had a single doubt about her decision. When those two parallel pink lines had ghosted into view, all her panic dissolved and she heard a clear, certain voice inside her head say:
I'm a mother now.
But even in the twenty-first century it was hard to predict how a pair of Southern parents would react to the news that their thirty-four-year-old unmarried daughter was pregnant. Louise spent all day rehearsing different scripts that would ease them into it, but the minute her mom answered and her dad picked up the kitchen extension, her mind went blank and she blurted out:
She braced herself for the barrage of questions.
Are you sure? Does Ian know? Are you going to keep it? Have you thought about moving back to Charleston? Are you certain this is the best thing? Do you have any idea how hard this will be alone? How are you going to manage?
In the long silence, she prepared her answers: Yes, not yet, of course, God no, no but I'm doing it anyway, yes, I'll manage.
Over the phone she heard someone inhale through what sounded like a mouthful of water and realized her mom was crying.
"Oh, Louise," her mother said in a thick voice, and Louise prepared herself for the worst. "I'm so happy. You're going to be the mother I wasn't."
Her dad only had one question: her exact street address.
"I don't want any confusion with the cab driver when we land."
"Dad," Louise said, "you don't have to come right now."
"Of course we do," he said. "You're our Louise."
She waited for them on the sidewalk, her heart pounding every time a car turned the corner, until finally a dark blue Nissan slowed to a stop in front of her building and her dad helped her mom out of the back seat, and she couldn't wait—she threw herself into her mom's arms like she was a little kid again.
They took her crib shopping and stroller shopping and told Louise she was crazy to even consider a cloth diaper service, and discussed feeding techniques and vaccinations and a million decisions Louise would have to make, and bought snot suckers and diapers and onesies, and receiving blankets and changing pads and wipes, and rash cream and burp cloths and rattles and night-lights, and Louise would've thought they'd bought way too much if her mother hadn't said, "You've hardly bought anything at all."
She couldn't even blame them for having a hard time with the whole Ian issue.
"Married or not, we have to meet his family," her mom said. "We're going to be co-grandparents."
"I haven't told him yet," Louise said. "I'm barely eleven weeks."
"Well, you're not getting any less pregnant," her mom pointed out.
"There are tangible financial benefits to marriage," her dad added. "You're sure you don't want to reconsider?"
Louise did not want to reconsider.
Ian could be funny, he was smart, and he made an obscenely high income curating rare vinyl for rich people in the Bay Area who yearned for their childhoods. He'd put together a complete collection of original pressing Beatles LPs for the fourth-largest shareholder at Facebook and found the bootleg of a Grateful Dead concert where a Twitter board member had proposed to his first wife. Louise couldn't believe how much they paid him for this.
On the other hand, when she suggested they should take a break he'd taken that as his cue to go down on one knee in the atrium of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and propose. He'd been so upset when she said no that she'd finally had pity sex with him, which was how she came to be in her current condition.
When Ian had proposed, he'd been wearing his vintage Nirvana In Utero T-shirt with a hole in the collar that had cost him four hundred dollars. He spent thousands every year on sneakers, which he insisted on calling "kicks." He checked his phone when she talked about her day, made fun of her when she mixed up the Rolling Stones and The Who, and said, "Are you sure?" whenever she ordered dessert.
"Dad," Louise said. "Ian's not ready to be a parent."
"Who is?" her mom asked.
But Louise knew Ian really wasn't ready.
Every family visit lasts three days too long, and by the end of the week Louise was counting the hours until she could be alone in her apartment again. The day before her parents' flight home, she holed up in her bedroom "doing email" while her mom took off her earrings to take a nap and her dad left to find a copy of the Financial Times. If they could do this until lunch, then go on a walk around the Presidio, then dinner, Louise figured everything would be fine.
Louise's body had other plans. She felt hungry now. She needed hard-boiled eggs now. She had to get up and go to the kitchen now. So she crept into the living room in her socks, trying not to wake her mom because she couldn't handle another conversation about why she wouldn't let her hair grow out, or why she should move back to Charleston, or why she should start drawing again.
Her mom lay asleep on the couch, on one side, a yellow blanket pulled up to her waist. The late-morning light brought out her skeleton, the tiny lines around her mouth, her thinning hair, her slack cheeks. For the first time in her life, Louise knew what her mother would look like dead.
"I love you," her mom said without opening her eyes.
"I know," she said after a moment.
"No," her mom said, "you don't."
Louise waited for her to add something, but her mom's breathing deepened, got regular, and turned into a snore.
Louise continued into the kitchen. Had she overheard half of a dream conversation? Or did her mom mean Louise didn't know she loved her? Or how much she loved her? Or she wouldn't understand how much her mom loved her until she had a daughter of her own?
She worried at it while she ate her hard-boiled egg. Was her mom talking about her living in San Francisco? Did she think Louise had moved this far away to put distance between them? Louise had moved here for school, then stayed for work, although when you grew up with all your friends telling you how cool your mom was and even your exes asked about her when you bumped into them, you needed some distance if you wanted to live your own life, and sometimes even three thousand miles didn't feel like enough to Louise. She wondered if her mom somehow knew.
Then there was her brother. Mark's name had only come up twice on this visit and Louise knew it ate at her mom that the two of them didn't have a "natural" relationship, but, to be honest, she didn't want a relationship with her brother, natural or otherwise. In San Francisco, she could pretend she was an only child.
Louise knew she was a typical oldest sibling, a cookie-cutter first child. She'd read the articles and scanned the listicles, and every single trait applied to her: reliable, structured, responsible, hardworking. She'd even seen it classified as a disorder—Oldest Sibling Syndrome—and that made her wonder what Mark's disorder was. Terminal Assholism, most likely.
When people asked why she didn't speak to her brother, Louise told them the story of Christmas 2016, when her mom spent all day cooking but Mark insisted they meet him for dinner at P. F. Chang's, where he showed up late, drunk, tried to order the entire menu, then passed out at the table.
"Why do you let him act like that?" Louise had asked.
"Try to be more understanding of your brother," her mom had said.
Louise understood her brother plenty. She won awards. Mark struggled through high school. She got a master's in design. Mark dropped out of college his freshman year. She built products that people used every day, including part of the user interface for the latest iteration of the iPhone. He was on a mission to get fired from every bar in Charleston. He only lived twenty minutes away from their parents but refused to lift a finger to help out.
No matter what he did, her parents lavished Mark with praise. He rented a new apartment and they acted like he brought down the Berlin Wall. He bought a truck for five hundred dollars and got it running again and he may as well have landed on the moon. When Louise won the Industrial Designers Society of America Graduate Student Merit Award she gave the trophy to her parents to thank them. They put it in the closet.
"Your brother is going to be hurt we have that out for you and nothing for him," her mom had said.
Louise knew that her not speaking to Mark was the eternal elephant in the room, the invisible ghost at the table, the phantom strain on every interaction with her parents, especially with her mom, who hated what she called "unpleasantness." Her mom was always "up," she was always "on," and while Louise didn't see anything wrong with being happy, her mom's enforced happiness seemed pathological. She avoided hard conversations about painful subjects. She had a Christian puppet ministry and acted like she was always onstage. The few times she lost it as a mother she'd snap, "You're embarrassing me!" as if being embarrassed was the worst possible thing that could happen to someone.
Maybe that's why she was so certain about her decision to have this baby. Becoming a mother would allow her and her mom to share something just between them. It would bring them closer together. She suspected all the things that annoyed her about her mom were exactly the things that would make her an incredible grandmother.
As Louise brushed eggshell off the counter, she thought that shared motherhood might form a bridge between them, and gradually the walls Louise had needed to protect herself would come down. It wouldn't happen overnight, but that was okay. They'd have a lifetime to adjust to each other's new roles—a daughter becoming a mother, a mother becoming a grandmother. They would have years.
As it turned out, she got five.
The call came as Louise desperately tried to convince her daughter that she was not going to like The Velveteen Rabbit.
"We just got all those new library books," she said. "Don't you want—"
"Velverdeen Rabbit," Poppy insisted.
"It's scarier than The Muppet Christmas Carol," Louise told her. "Remember how scary that was when the door knocker turned into the man's face?"
"I want Velverdeen Rabbit," Poppy said, her voice firm.
Louise knew she should take the path of least resistance and just read Poppy The Velveteen Rabbit, but that would happen over her dead body. She should have checked the package before letting Poppy open it, because of course her mom hadn't sent the check for Dinosaur Dig Summer Camp like she'd promised, but she had randomly sent Poppy a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit because she thought it was Louise's favorite book.
It was not Louise's favorite book. It was the source of Louise's childhood nightmares. The first time her mom had read it to her she'd been Poppy's age and she'd burst into tears when the Rabbit got taken outside to be burned.
"I know," her mom had said, completely misreading the situation. "It's my favorite book, too."
The book's emotional cruelty made five-year-old Louise's stomach hurt: the thoughtless Boy who abused his toys, the needy toys who pathologically craved his approval no matter how much he neglected them, the remote and fearsome Nana, the bullying rabbits living in the wild. But her mom kept picking it for her bedtime story, oblivious to the fact that Louise would lie rigid while she read, hands gripping the sheet, staring at the ceiling as her mom did all the voices.
It was a master class in acting, a star turn by Nancy Joyner, and getting to deliver this performance was the real reason her mom kept picking the book. By the end, they'd both be crying, but for very different reasons.
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse. "When you are Real, you don't mind being hurt."
Louise had dated a girl at Berkeley who had that exact quote tattooed on her forearm and she wasn't surprised when she found out that she gave herself tattoos with a sewing needle taped to a BIC pen.
The Velveteen Rabbit confused masochism with love, it wallowed in loneliness, and what kind of awful thing was a Skin Horse, anyway?
Louise wouldn't make the same mistake with Poppy. There would be no Velveteen Rabbit in this house, even if she had to fight dirty.
"You're going to hurt the feelings of all those new library books," Louise said, and instantly Poppy's eyes got wide. "They're going to be sad you didn't want to read them first. You're going to make them cry."
Lying to Poppy felt awful, pretending inanimate objects had feelings felt manipulative, but every time Louise did it she felt less guilty. Her mom had manipulated them throughout their childhoods with impossible promises and flat-out lies (elves are real but you'll only see one if you're absolutely quiet for this entire car ride; I'm allergic to dogs so we can't have one) and she'd vowed to always be honest and straightforward with her own child. Of course, the second Poppy turned out to be an early talker, Louise had adjusted her approach, but she didn't rely on it nearly as much as her mother. That was important.
"They're really going to cry?" Poppy asked.
"Yes," Louise said. "And their pages are going to get all wet."
Which, thank God, is when her ringtone activated, playing the hysteric escalating major chords of "Summit" with its frantic bird whistles, which meant the call came from family. She looked at her screen, expecting it to read "Mom&Dad Landline" or "Aunt Honey." Instead, it said "Mark."
Her hands got cold.
He needs money, Louise thought. He's in San Francisco and he needs a place to stay. He's been arrested and Mom and Dad finally put their foot down.
"Mark," she said, answering, feeling her pulse snap in her throat. "Is everything all right?"
"You need to sit down," he said.
Automatically, she stood up.
"What happened?" she asked.
"Don't freak out," he said.
She started to freak out.
"What did you do?" she asked.
"Mom and Dad are in a better place," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean," he said, and carefully put his next sentence together. "They're not suffering anymore."
"I just talked to them on Tuesday," Louise said. "They weren't suffering on Tuesday. You need to tell me what's happening."
"I'm trying!" he snapped, and his words sounded mushy. "Jesus, I'm sorry I'm not doing it the right way. I'm sure you'd be perfect at this. Mom and Dad are dead."
The lights went out all over Northern California. They went out across the bay. They went dark in Oakland and Alameda. Darkness rolled across the Bay Bridge, and Yerba Buena turned as black as the water lapping at its shores. The lights went out in the ferry building, the Tenderloin, and the Theater District; darkness advanced on Louise, street by street, from the Mission to the park to her building, the apartment downstairs, the front hall. The entire world went black except for a single spotlight shining down on Louise, standing in her living room, gripping her phone.
"No," she said, because Mark was wrong about things all the time. He'd once invested in a snake farm.
"They got T-boned on the corner of Coleman and McCants by some asshole in an SUV," Mark said. "I'm already talking to a lawyer. He thinks because it was Mom and Dad we're looking at a huge settlement."
This doesn't make any sense, Louise thought.
"This doesn't make any sense," she said.
"Dad was in the passenger seat so, you know, he got it the worst," Mark continued. "Mom was driving, which she totally shouldn't have been doing because, dude, you know how she is at night and it was pouring down rain. The car rolled and it sliced her arm off at the shoulder. It's horrible. She died in the ambulance. I find knowing these details makes it easier."
"Mark . . ." Louise said, and she needed to breathe, she couldn't breathe.
"Listen," he said, soft and slurred. "I get it. You're where I was earlier, but it's important to think of them as energy. They didn't suffer, right? Because our bodies are just vessels for our energy and energy can't feel pain."
Louise's knuckles tightened around her phone.
"Are you drunk?"
He immediately got defensive, which meant yes.
"This isn't an easy call for me," he said, "but I wanted to reach out and tell you that everything is going to be okay."
"I need to call someone," Louise said, feeling desperate. "I need to call Aunt Honey."
"Call whoever you want," Mark said, "but I want you to know that everything really is going to be okay."
"Mark," Louise snapped, "we haven't spoken in three years and you get drunk and call and tell me Mom and Dad are . . ." She became conscious of Poppy and lowered her voice. ". . . are not doing well but it's okay because they're energy? It's not okay."
"You should have a drink, too," he said.
"When did it happen?"
Silence on his end of the phone. Then:
"Those details don't matter . . ."
That triggered her internal alarms.
"Yes, they do."
He made it sound casual.
"Like yesterday around two in the morning. I've been dealing with a lot."
"Forty-one hours?" she said, doing the math.
Her parents had been dead for almost two days and she'd been walking around like nothing happened because Mark couldn't be bothered to pick up the phone. She hung up.
She looked at Poppy kneeling on the floor by the piano bench whispering to her library books and petting them, and she saw her mom. Poppy had her mom's blond hair, her delicately pointed chin, her enormous brown eyes, her undersized frame. Louise wanted to swoop down, gather her up, bury her face in the sweet smell of her, but that was the kind of grand theatrical gesture her mom favored. Her mom would never think that it might scare Poppy or make her feel unsafe.
"Was that Granny?" Poppy asked, because she adored her grandmother and had learned to recognize the family ringtone.
"It was just Aunt Honey," Louise lied, barely holding herself together. "And I need to call your grandmother. You stay here and watch one episode of PAW Patrol, and when you're done we'll make a special dinner."
Poppy bounced up. She was never allowed to use the iPad by herself, so the exciting new privilege distracted her from her sad library books and from who'd been on the phone. Louise got her settled on the sofa with the iPad, walked to her bedroom, and closed the door.
Mark had made a mistake. He was drunk. He had once invested thousands of dollars in a Christmas tree factory in Mexico that turned out to be a scam because he had a "gut feeling" about it. Louise needed to know for sure. She didn't think she could stand it if she called home and no one answered, so she called Aunt Honey.
Her fingers wouldn't go where she wanted and kept opening her weather app, but finally she managed to make them tap on Aunt Honey's number in her contacts.
Her aunt (great-aunt, technically) picked up on the first ring.
"What?" she barked through phlegm-clogged vocal cords.
"Aunt Honey," Louise said, then her throat closed and she couldn't say anything.
"Oh, Lulu," Aunt Honey croaked, and those two words contained all the heartbreak in the world.
Everything went very quiet. Louise's nervous system made a high-pitched tone in her ears. She didn't know what to say next.
"I don't know what to do," she finally said, her voice small and miserable.
"Sweetheart," Aunt Honey said, "pack a nice dress. And come home."
Louise's mom also had a pathological inability to discuss death. When their uncle Arthur had a heart attack and drove his riding lawn mower through a greenhouse, she'd told Mark and Louise that she and their dad were going to Myrtle Beach for a vacation, then parked them with Aunt Honey. When Sue Estes's older sister died of leukemia in fifth grade, Louise's mom had told her she was too young to go to the funeral. Her friendship with Sue was never the same after that. Louise's mom had claimed to be allergic to all pets, including goldfish, for their entire childhoods, and it wasn't until Louise got out of grad school that her mom revealed she'd simply never wanted anything in the house that might die.
"It would have upset you and your brother too much," she'd explained.
When Louise had Poppy, she vowed to be honest about death. She knew that stating the facts plainly would be the best way for Poppy to understand that death was part of life. She would answer all Poppy's questions with absolute honesty, and if she didn't know something they'd figure out the answer together.
"I'm going to Charleston tomorrow," Louise told Poppy that night, sitting on the story-time chair beside her bed, in the glow of the plastic goose lamp. "And I want you to understand why. Your grandmother and grandfather had a very bad accident." Louise saw safety glass exploding, metal tearing and twisting. "And their bodies got hurt very badly. They got hurt so badly that they stopped working. And your grandmother and grandfather died."
Poppy shot up in bed, smashing into Louise like a cannonball, wrapping her arms around her ribs too tight, bursting into a long, keening wail.
"No!" Poppy screamed. "No! No!"
Louise tried to explain that it was okay, that she was sad, too, that they would be sad together and that being sad when someone died was normal, but every time she started to speak, Poppy wiped her face back and forth against Louise like she was trying to scrape it off, screaming, "No! No! No!"
Finally, when she realized Poppy wasn't going to stop anytime soon, Louise eased herself up onto the bed and held her daughter in her arms until Poppy cried herself to sleep.
So much for explaining death the healthy way.
Louise held Poppy's feverish, limp body for hours, wishing harder than she'd ever wished before that for just sixty seconds someone would hold her, but no one holds moms.
She remembered her mom holding her in her lap while they sat in Dr. Rector's waiting room, where it smelled like alcohol swabs and finger pricks, distracting Louise by telling her what all the other children were there for.
"That little boy over there?" her mom had said, pointing to a six-year-old picking his nose. "He picked his nose so much that all he can smell now are his fingerprints. They're getting him a nose transplant. And that one chewing his mother's purse strap? They accidentally swapped his brain for a dog's. That little girl? She ate apple seeds and they're growing apple trees inside her tummy."
"Is she going to be all right?" Louise asked.
"Of course," her mom said. "The apples are delicious. That's why they're here. They want Dr. Rector to plant some oranges, too."
Her mom remembered everyone's birthday, everyone's anniversary, everyone's first day at a new job, everyone's due date. She remembered every single cousin or nephew or church person's entire life calendar like it was her job. She wrote notes, she dropped off pies, and Louise couldn't remember a single birthday when she hadn't picked up the phone and heard her mom singing the happy birthday song on the other end.
- On Sale
- Jan 17, 2023
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Hachette Book Group