Every week, host Adam Sockel interviews a popular member of the literary world about their passions beyond what they're known for. These longform, relaxed conversations show listeners a new side of some of their favorite content creators as well as provide insight into the things that inspire their work.
Grady Hendrix’s new novel, How to Sell a Haunted House, is the culmination of what his career as a horror novelist has been all about: building terror through emotion and experiences we can all relate to. In this discussion, Adam and Grady chat about how these emotional cores that transform into fear sprung from his original passion for folklore and the horror that comes from it.
They discuss his early years living in England, how he came to be known as “the horror book” person, what makes a good story in eyes and so much more. They then turn the episode into an impromptu horror book recommendation session (see below!)
Enjoyed this episode? Be sure to rate and review us on whatever platform you listen to your podcasts and send your feedback to email@example.com. If you email us proof of your review, Adam will send you a personalized book recommendation via email!
You are listening to Passions and Prologues, a literary podcast. For each week, I'll interview an author about a thing they love and how it inspires their work. I'm your host Adam Sockel, and if this is your first time checking in, thanks so much for joining. If you've been here for a while, thanks for coming back.
Today's episode is a big one. I've got Grady Hendrix on the episode, and we are talking all about his fascination with folklore and the horror that can come from folklore.
Grady has a new book out called How to Sell a Haunted House, which is phenomenal and it will creep you out in the best way possible.
Grady writes these books where he takes things that we can all relate to, a modern day house, a IKEA bookstore, a book club, and transforms them into these creepy novels that again, we can all relate to and touch on these little parts of all of our lives that we may not realize there's fear lying just underneath the surface.
In this discussion, again, we talk about his interest in folklore. We get into his early life growing up in England, and then sort of how he became the horror person, basically, how he did a ton of reading to write Paperbacks from Hell, and then it sort of transitions into a book recommendation episode at the very end.
You can check out the show notes for all of the books that we both recommend, and I'm going to give you another book recommendation right now. And in keeping with the theme, we talk a little bit about Shirley Jackson in this episode, and it reminded me of Shirley Jackson's collection of short stories, Life Among the Savages.
These are kind of lightly, moderately fictionalized, memoiric stories where Shirley Jackson talks about the different things that she was doing as a mother and as a partner, while also being perhaps one of the greatest horror novelists of all time.
It's very, very funny. I think that's my favorite thing about Life Among the Savages and its sequel Raising Demons is … Shirley Jackson is known for being extremely creepy. And in these two books, she's very, very funny and very domestic, and it's just a joy to read.
So, that is a book recommendation that is not so creepy. All the recommendations of the books that Grady and I talk about are going to be fairly creepy.
Now, if you are new here, and I know I got a decent chunk of new listeners over the past week or so, I have an email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can always email me your passions, the things that you are passionate about whenever you like, and then every single month I'm going to give away a bookshop.org gift certificate to somebody at random.
And also, if you leave me a rating or review wherever you listen to podcasts, just send me a screenshot of that again, at email@example.com and I'll give you some customized book recommendations.
And then you can always find me on Instagram and TikTok the same name, Passions and Prologues. Okay, that's all of the housekeeping. I'm not going to keep you any longer.
I am so excited to say that I hope you enjoyed this discussion with Grady Hendrix on Passions and Prologues.
So Grady, I am extremely, extremely excited to ask you this first question. What is the thing you are super passionate about that we're going to discuss today?
So, one of my obsessions for many, many years is folk horror. And I have a terrible voice, so F-O-L-K horror. And it's something that is just — when I was a kid, my dad worked in England for a couple years, and so, we lived over there for about a year and a half around there. I was six and seven.
And it really got in my blood. And I sort of am obsessed with England and it's that early childhood memory kind of place. And I read this book very early on when we were in the house we rented, the owner's left behind called Legends Folklore and Superstitions of the British Isles of Great Britain.
And it was intense. It was heavily illustrated. It turns out it's a Reader's Digest book, but black, fake leather cover, gold mask embossed on the front. And it was just amazing. And it gave me a taste for this.
And one of the things that always bums me out, because I'm an American, I write in America, I write about America. And we don't have that folk horror tradition. England's oozing with it, they've got thousands of years of history to draw on and stone circles and druids and all this stuff, and ancient forests.
And in the States, we don't have that tradition. Really, there's Stephen King's Children of the Corn, which has inspired 16 sequels, I think. And there's Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home, which was a big bestseller in the 70s, but is largely forgotten today. And I guess if you go back further, there's Nathaniel Hawthorne's, Young Goodman Brown.
But we just don't have the tradition the way the UK does, this sort of in the fields, in the furrows, this idea of this landscape that's older than us, that reaches out and shapes us.
And I think one of the problems is when you start looking too much at American history, you wind up coming face to face with our two great original sins. You get into slavery, which is, enslaved workers are the people who shaped the landscape, not just in the south, but in the north. These people built earthworks and fields and agriculture and reshaped waterways and did all and leveled forests.
But you're already putting a foot into a really even still contested to this day, part of American history.
And then you go back further than that and you have the genocide against the Native Americans.
In England, you start talking about folk horror and you can wade way out into where the deep things swim. In the States, you start wading out and knee deep, you look down and you're just in blood and it just gets bloodier. And I think that's one reason we don't have a tradition we've embraced.
I love this answer so much. The second that you started talking about this, three different authors/books came to mind. One is there is this young adult horror novel, it's an Irish horror novel called The Call by Peadar O Guilin. It is brutal. I even hesitate to even call it young adult horror because it's one of those books where no one is safe. You think you meet a main character and they are just offed right away.
But the basis for that novel is fairies and quite clearly fictional characters, like you said, that have been steeped in Irish heritage.
And then I think of from an American standpoint, you're absolutely right, I think of Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark.
And then, everything Stephen Graham Jones has done, you're right, everything that is American “folk horror” like you said, it's steeped in real life tragedy and pain and things that — they’re A, to be frank, there's only so many people who can write about those things and should write about them. And like you said, it's also a little bit of like having a shorter documented history for us.
Go ahead. Yeah.
Yeah. And I was just going to say really quickly, and also the other thing is there's still live issues today. You can't talk about the genocide against Native Americans without talking about reservations and all the issues those bring up and blood quantums and all those things. And you can't talk about slavery without talking about black history and black culture today.
So, they're so electrified, still. Anyway sorry, what were you about to say?
No, no, it's okay. So, I was going to ask, you mentioned reading this first book and I was joking with you before we started recording. I won't get into spoilers for How to Sell a Haunted House, which we'll talk about in just a little bit here.
But you introduced something very early on that creeped me out as a kid and I've always had a interesting fascination with. But what was it about that first book that made you want to keep exploring folk horror and kind of how did it stay connected with you?
And in your younger years that's probably a little bit more obvious, for people who are familiar with your work, how it stayed with you as an author. But in those early years, those formative years, how did they connect with what-
Well, there was sort of this thing where in my elementary school I went to, because I had just graduated from first grade when we moved to England. We were on the edge of a swamp. And so, we would always play out in the swamp and you'd sort of sneak past the supervisors and get into the trees and the swamp and the bushes.
So, that was always been really big in my imagination because as little kids, we turned it in this fantasy land with forts and wars and passages and we had that mapped out. It was our world. And so, already being in the woods and in this sort of like marshland was a big thing for me.
And then in England, I was trying to get a handle on this country, not in any conscious way, but my parents were very much like, “We're going to do something cultural every weekend.”
So, they'd load us up into our Volkswagen van and drive to some pile of stones’ house, some great pile in the country, or some grand house or to a stone hinge or some stone hinge junior. Or something like that. Or a forest.
And they were pretty boring. And so, this book gave me something to project onto them that made them more exciting. That, oh this house actually had hiding holes, priest holes where Catholic priests would be hidden during the Elizabethan era, and priest hunters would come looking for them and drag them out and torture them to death.
And this standing stone was where druids sacrificed children. This forest was so large that no one ever went into the middle of it. And it was where a God walked or reportedly walked and a woman went missing.
So, being able to project that onto those things made them less boring and more exciting. And then when I came back to the States, back to the school with the swamp, but I also, I was a cub scout and then a boy scout and I never was very good at merit badges.
Mostly what I was there for was the camping and the hiking. And so, I would spend a lot of time out in the woods on these camp outs and there were so much fun. And we would play these enormous games of capture the flag and tag in the woods, in the dark, in the middle of the night.
And it was great. And it was just this fun sense of being in the middle of something away from people that had no regard for people. And a forest feels like an individual, a forest never feels like, here's a tree, here's a tree, here's a tree, here's a tree, here's a rock.
A forest always feels like an organism to me. It surrounds you and engulfs you. And so, I think those three sort of experiences early in life really made me primed for things like The Wicker Man.
So, did you find those scenarios exciting? Were you the type of person who liked being scared as a kid? Because I feel like I have always had this interesting connection with horror where I love reading horror and I like watching some sorts of horror.
But I feel like it was thrust upon me because I had friends who were obsessed with Friday the 13th movies. And anytime there would be one of those old — I don’t know if it's TBS or AMC.
They would have those, they would play like eight of them in a row and we would stay up all night, watch them. And I feel like it was just because my friends liked them, I enjoyed them.
So, now it's almost a weird comfort to be uncomfortable for me. For you in those moments in the woods and these different aspects, did you always find joy in that being scared aspect?
Absolutely. It's scary, but it's fun and it was always in the context of having fun. And I think I came to horror the way a lot of people do, which is my friends and I would rent a bunch of horror movies and then have a sleepover and between the movies, we'd go out and play tag and stuff like that in the neighborhood, in the dark. And it was really fun.
So, to me, the associations growing up with horror, because I wasn't a huge horror guy. I read Clive Barker. But I wasn't like, “Oh, my God, I love horror.” It mostly felt too creepy, the book covers.
But my associations were fun, they were friendly, this was how we related to each other. So, to me, horrors always felt like those connotations of community and friendship.
So, at what point for you did it kind of switch? Because again, for people who were familiar with your work, you are not just a person who reads horror, you wrote Paperbacks from Hell, you are one of the what I would consider, the historians of horror.
Yeah, you can put that on your website if you want. I feel like you are one of the people who now knows this rich history of this genre.
So, when did it kind of switch for you from being like, oh, I enjoy, like you said, these movies and some king and aspects of that to it being something that has really become a massive part of your life.
So, I was a journalist and when those jobs all ended in 2008, I sort of was like, “What's my skillset here? It’s typing.” Because I did cultural coverage, so I wasn't covering politics. I was covering stuff that was very replaceable by a staff writer.
And so, I went to Clarion's Fantasy and Science Fiction Workshop in 2009. And when I came out of there … I was writing everything. I was writing fantasy and science fiction and all kinds of stuff, but the stuff there I seemed to be writing stuff that people wanted to read was hard.
And so, I just leaned into that. And of course I needed to know more about it, so I was reading as much as I could. I'd read by then, Shirley Jackson and all these people. But I was just reading more. And one of the things that happened to me is I felt like “Well, this is a field that I need to know about. This is where I work, I got to know what's going on.”
It's funny, Alan Moore always said that he really feels like he wants to know how the engine works in terms of writing. And so, I was like, “Yeah, why should this stuff be a mystery?” So, I was going to all these paperback swap shops and noticing they had these big horror sections with writers I'd never heard of.
So, I was reading them relatively randomly and writing about them for tour for about 25 bucks a po, because if I did four of those in a month, that was a nice little bit of income.
And then my editor at work, Jason Rekulak said, “Have you ever thought about pitching us a book of these things?” And I was like, “Sure.” And they bought it.
And then I had to sort of like, okay, there's got to be a story here. You can't just throw this at people randomly. There's got to be a beginning, middle and end. And I got Will Errickson, who runs the too much horror fiction blog to write Paperbacks from Hell for me, because he's the only person I could find who knew this stuff, better than I did.
And we really figured out the history of it and of that era, this coming out of the 60s and the 70s, 80s and then going away in the nineties for that book.
So, yeah. So, that was sort of the multipronged injection I took into my brain.
No, that makes sense. And for you then, what draws you to a horror novel? Is it still that folk aspect of it? Or are there different things? Because I feel like there's a blurb for your latest book where they basically say this … I'm paraphrasing, but it's this classic Grady Hendrix thing of heartbreak and horror where it's like you put emotion into the stories.
And I agree. I feel like every single one of your books, whether it's We Sold Our Souls or Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, I feel like there's an aspect where I can connect with the characters.
It's not just like, I'm reading this because there's a killer on the loose and it's-
What is it that draws you to reading a horror novel now?
Well, it's funny. That's something I learned. I'll read anything. Do you know what I mean? I'll read The Dentist … skeleton doctor on the cover, 460-page padded out piece of garbage, to Gabino Iglesias’s new book. I'll read it all. I'm a really fast reader.
So, but what I realized is that … and I learned this doing Paperbacks from Hell. Because I read something like 326 books in that 10-month period of these paperbacks to sort of get the context I needed to write the book.
And what I realized was that there was an arms race going on, and if you were writing, in chapter one, bigfoot rips off this person's head. In chapter two, he rips off the head with the spine attached and beats someone to death. Well, now we got to get into bigfoot having sex — you just had to keep escalating these spectacles.
And it really led to a cul-de-sac where you're just numb to it. But I realize that if you could get readers super invested in the characters emotionally, then you didn't have to kill anyone. Because as long as it was important or scary or extreme or excruciating for the characters, then it would be for the reader.
A needle prick in the right place is … if I ever had a needle shoved under my fingernail, I'd be traumatized for years. And so, let alone had my head ripped off and my spine attached and be beaten to death with it.
So, I just realized that that was the way to make it work.
I feel like it's why The Babadook was such a good movie that people connected with. It was kind of that exact reason. You cared about the characters and you didn't even see the monster until it’s eight minutes into the movie.
I just saw Megan, that killer doll movie. She kills three people, in that movie. And it's a very low body count, but it works because it's about this kid in grief and parenting and all these other things.
Yeah. And then, there's the complete opposite side of that which is, I don't know if you've read Max Brooks's Devolution, which is a-
Big phenomenal. And again, I don't want to give anything away, but it becomes pretty clear in the middle of the book, something absurd has to happen for them to get out. It's pinning people into a corner and seeing-
How people can get them out of it.
Well, and also the other thing is, listen, I love spectacle, you know what I mean? I really liked World War Z a lot. I'm a zombie guy, so I'll ingest any zombie movie. I love Tokyo Gore Police and Dead Alive or Braindead as it's called, Peter Jackson's. I love that stuff.
But spectacle, it's not a book thing. Books are interior, and so, if you're going to deploy spectacle, you've got to do it really judiciously, in a book.
Yeah. So, speaking of interiors, with your new book, How to Sell a Haunted House, haunted house stories, you mentioned Shirley Jackson, they are a thing that A, has been done and done and done, but they also are a genre unto themselves.
I have a friend who may be familiar with, Mallory O’Meara. She's another podcaster. She has reading glasses. She and I have been buddies for a long time now, and she's my horror buddy who if I find a horror book that I've read that she hasn't yet, I feel like I've won a prize getting to tell her about it.
But she loves a horror book that is a haunted house. And so, taking on the task of writing a haunted house book, how did you approach that in a way that you're like, “Okay, I want to do something that hasn't been done before.” Because it is a genre that is so wildly popular, but it is one that has been done so often.
Yeah. So, one of my big touchstones for this was Anne Rivers Siddons’ The House Next Door. Which was a horror novel from the early 80s, but it's about a modern house. And it's really set in a recognizable contemporary world. And I really wanted to do that.
And I wanted to write a book about the relationship we have with inanimate objects because when someone dies, you deal with the stuff they leave behind. It's their junk, it's their shoes, it's their clothes, it's their dolls, it's furniture, but also stories and memories and ghosts.
And I was thinking about the relationship we have with being around the objects and yes, dolls are scary, but we all grew up with stuffed animals that we loved.
And one of the things I realized is, oftentimes, if you look at Richard Matheson's Hell House, or Shirley Jackson's Haunted Hill House or even The House Next Door, houses are haunted by evil forces, The Amityville Horror, The Entity.
And it's like well, mostly what would haunt your house would be things you know, people who you know who died there. If a ghost haunts your house, it's probably someone who lived there, that lived there with you. Or if it's dolls, it's dolls you have and know.
And so, that's what I really wanted to do, is make a house that was haunted, not by some baseless dark force, but was haunted by basically, the ghost of your parents.
There was a very, very early version of this book where the house was haunted by ghost of the parents. But that got to slapstick so fast. Immediately you're like, “The ghost of my mom's in the bathroom and I'm taking a shower. Whoa.”
And that's fun, but it's not emotionally resonant, your mom sees your butt.
It's like writing your own version of Beetlejuice and you're like, “Okay, how do I make this work?”
I always struggle when I'm interviewing horror novelists to be the person who talks about the book. So, I'll let you kind of like, maybe beyond the fact that it is a haunted house book, I'll let you talk a little bit about it that way you can say exactly how much you wanted to talk … because there are some parts relatively early in the book where it's like, “Oh, I think I see where this is going.”
So, for people who are unfamiliar with How to Sell a Haunted House, do you want to kind of talk about it just a little-
So, people can know about it.
Sure. I feel like what you need to know is that it's about two adult siblings, Mark and Louise who hate each other and don't want to come anywhere near each other. And they wind up having to be in the same place at the same time and coexisting when their parents die unexpectedly and they go home and have to clean out their childhood home and put it on the market. And it's haunted of course. And it's haunted by killer puppets and dolls.
And that, I feel like once you know that you're like, “Okay, my haunted puppet and doll tolerance level is here and I don't want this book in my life.”
And I'm curious for you from an idea generating standpoint. I never ask authors, “Where do your ideas come from?” Because I hate that. I feel like that's the thing you'll get on a radio show.
But I think about your types of novels like, Horrorstor and We Sold Our Souls and even Southern Book Club, these are ideas that on their surface, rock and roll music, an IKEA type store, they're not inherently creepy.
But then there's things like Final Girl Support Group where obviously it's like slasher films and things people are very familiar with, exorcisms and then How to Sell a Haunted House. Are you always looking at ideas as a way as like, how can I turn this into a story?
Or do you have something that kind of catches you and sort of sits in your heart and like, “Ooh, I need to tell a story about this place or in this location,” type of a thing?
Yeah. The thing for me is it's really, really hard to look at the world. We see it so mediated; we're seeing it through social media, we're seeing it through TV or movies or books. And it's really hard to look at it. But I feel like my job is to sort of do that and look for the things that we all have in common and know, and then figure out a way to add something to that that does something with it.
So, with Horrorstor about a haunted IKEA, it's everyone knows IKEA, everyone knows haunted houses, but at the same time, everyone's had a crappy job. A lot of us have worked retail. We all know how bad that is. So okay, how do I make that come to life?
With How to Sell a Haunted House, we all have these childhood stuffed animals for the most part, and we did have these emotional connections with them, and we're all going to have to at some point clean out our parents' house when they die and deal with the stuff they leave behind. Both physical and metaphysical.
And so, it's looking for those things, looking for those common points that sort of are out there, but they're so ordinary and every day, we don't really think of them.
One thing I really wanted to do that I wasn't able to, that my editor didn't go for it is during the pandemic I really wanted to write something sat in a hospital. Because I felt like we were all so obsessed with hospitals and healthcare and all these things.
And I really wanted to do something set in a hospital and they were just like, that's more of a thriller. You write horror for us, get back in your cage.
But I do feel like there are things like that out there that we know and it's just keeping your eyes open for them, which is hard.
Yeah. I feel like there are people out there who would disagree with you and I can feel like Chuck Wendig would say like, “I think we can write about a pandemic in a creepy way.”
And I definitely think you can. That was not what my editors wanted for me at that moment. And one thing I learned early in my career is (and it sounds stupid), you'd be amazed at how many people don't do it and how hard the lesson it was for me to learn, you never want to write a book that your publisher doesn't want to publish.
Yeah. That's a good point. And it sounds like to me, what you — and correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like you are always seeking a connection point in your story that people will be able to latch onto and say, this is an aspect that I understand. Even if the rest of the craziness around that is something that perhaps they can't, like if they can feel a connection to an aspect of your story. Does that sound right?
Well, that's because I'm lazy. If I can connect to something that already resonates for someone, then that wheel's already spinning. I just need to keep giving the little taps along the side to keep it moving. I don't have to start it from zero.
Do you itch to write folk horror set in a different country or do you find yourself wanting to tell stories that harken back to the things that you first discovered about this genre?
Yeah. I would love to write American folk horror. And it's hard because so many of the archetypes are British, and so, it's really hard to find what's American. But we're a nation of immigrants. We bring our folk horror with us.
So, that's the way in. And I also think, there's a difference between environmental horror and folk horror. But at the same time, right now, there are two things that obsess everyone. And one is sort of income inequality. We talk about it all the time. It's everywhere.
And the other one is global warming. And it is the number one issue out there and it's the landscape, we are obsessed with landscape and the natural world around us and what have we done to it and can we come back from it? Or is it too late?
We imagine what the world will look like emptied of us. We imagine whether the world's trying to kill us. These are all folk horror concerns. So, I feel like there's really something there. Tying it together is going to be — I don't have that missing piece yet.
Yeah. No, I know what you mean because there is this … I feel like horror is a way that authors can offer up social commentary in a way that is almost like, I don't want to say safe, but it disarms people.
They get into the book because it's a Grady Hendrix book or like at its surface it's about how to sell a haunted house, like you said, then you can talk about these environmental aspects. And I do think horror is uniquely qualified for something like that.
Listen, metaphors exist for a reason. It helps keep something at arm's length, so you can look at it rather than letting it get too close until you look away.
But also to me, it's like what I was saying about the wheel spinning. I'm not doing this so much to make a social comment as I am to like, I want to find things that people already care about and are already engaged with. Because then, I don't have to do the heavy lifting.
So, I normally ask authors for just any random recommendation they want to offer. It could be like talking about Mallory, she talked about a protein powder that she liked because her episode with me was talking about power lifting.
But I can't have Grady Hendrix on my podcast and not ask you for some horror recommendations. So, I'm asking this off the top of your head, but what are some horror novels that you've read? It could be recently, it could be last year, whenever that you think people should know about.
Well, I'm going to recommend old ones.
You can find them, they're easy to find. But I would say almost anything by Michael McDowell, he was a queer writer who died of AIDS in the 80s.
But when he was alive, he was maybe the greatest paperback original writer in the States. And his books are really fantastic. They're set in the south; The Elementals is amazing. He's the most famous for writing the screenplay for Beetlejuice and Nightmare before Christmas.
But his novels are phenomenal, so if you try The Elementals and the best place to go after that is Cold Moon over Babylon or his series, The Blackwater Saga.
Elizabeth Engstrom’s, When Darkness Loves Us, is an incredible, it's two novellas published as a novel. It's amazing. It is really intense and very dark.
And I would be really remiss if I didn't recommend, speaking of folk horror, Bari Wood’s The Tribe, which is probably the great Jewish horror novel ever written.
Yeah. I love that. Speaking of, there's a book I've talked about a couple of times, I wouldn't classify it specifically as horror, it's just relatively new. You mentioned Jewish horror, it's called Thistlefoot. It is-
I don’t know it.
Okay. So, Thistlefoot and sorry for everyone who is listening in this, we mentioned this book like 19 times, but I am obsessed with it. It's by GennaRose Nethercott. And it is it's based in the Jewish folklore of like Baba Yaga.
And it's the story of these two siblings who are descendants of Baba Yaga. And they inherit this house that sits on giant chicken legs and is mobile. It's an actual sentient house that they live in. And they go about the country.
That's really cool.
Speaking of puppets, they do a puppet show that they travel around doing, but they're also being chased by this dark secret thing. And it is one of the weirdest, strangest novels. But I do think you mentioned Jewish folk horror. This is one that I think-
Yeah. That sounds awesome.
Yeah. One last question for you. Is there a modern horror novel that you've read in the last couple years that has just stuck with you? That is like the quintessential.
Yeah. There's two that have really stuck with me. Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song, which is about an airborne Coronavirus outbreak. He wrote it before the Coronavirus. Really, it has a great surgery scene in it.
And Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians are both books that really punch above their weight and stuck with me for a long time.
Yeah, I fully agree about The Only Good Indians. It is fantastic. I feel like I could keep you here and talk about horror novels all day long, but I won't do that. I'll be respectful.
Grady, thank you so much for joining me today.
No dude, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
Passions and Prologues is proud to be an Evergreen Podcast and was created by Adam Sockel. It was produced by Adam Sockel and Sean Rule-Hoffman. And if you are interested in this podcast and any other Evergreen Podcasts, you can go to evergreenpodcasts.com to discover all the different stories we have to tell.