Learn about the major movie and television deals lined up for his novels
Grady Hendrix is gruesome. Or at least his books are, if you consider severed limbs, murderous puppets, and a flesh-eating rat orgy gruesome. He’s also a conundrum: the polite Southern gentleman who can pull off wearing a seersucker suit to a horror expo and not bat a bloody, needle-stabbed eye. He’s the guy who knows, and delights in, every sordid, spine-tingling detail of the history of Dracula, demonic possession, and the Friday the 13th franchise and can also charm your socks off. When How to Sell a Haunted House (Berkley), Hendrix’s sixth novel and third one set in Charleston, is released this month, let’s just say the booming Old Mount Pleasant real estate market might get a little scare.
So how exactly does a nice boy nicknamed “Sunshine” from Mount Pleasant’s tame and tasteful Old Village, a Sunday school regular, and a proper Charleston cotillion graduate become a blockbuster bloodcurdler? How does a dream kid—who, despite decades living in Manhattan, still says “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir” and makes a special trip to Charleston to meet with his mother’s book club so he can personally ask their permission to write a novel based on them—become a best-selling nightmare generator, at least for those who read his frighteningly popular books?
Hendrix’s 2021 novel, The Final Girl Support Group (Berkley), earned him the Goodreads Choice Award for best horror writer, a category in which he dethroned none other than Stephen King. In October, Audible.com named him among its top 15 best horror writers; and his books are best sellers in the nation’s fifth-most popular fiction genre, one that sucked the monetary marrow out of readers to the tune of $79.6 million in 2021, according to Book Riot. He’s got major movie and television deals lined up for four of his titles (see sidebar, page 99), and Amazon Prime recently released its film version of My Best Friend’s Exorcism (Quirk Books, 2016), in which teen angst, bad ’80s hair, and sinister demons are no match for a mall-stalking, Jesus-loving body builder.
Ominous Oeuvre: Though the titles and cover art of Hendrix’s books evoke classic horror genre tropes (with the exception of Horrorstör, which evokes classic Ikea catalogs), his prose and plots are brilliantly original, appealing to readers who’d never otherwise read horror.
Hendrix, who just turned 50 and once worked for a paranormal institute, has been writing professionally for two decades. The New York University graduate began as a freelance journalist and movie critic in New York, specializing in Asian films for outlets like Variety, The New York Sun, Slate, Playboy, and The Village Voice. He pumped out witty and wicked-smart articles on everything from giant squid (“like Tom Cruise between movies, the giant squid is camera-shy”) to big-name international actors you’ve never heard of (“Rajinikanth... is no mere actor—he is a force of nature. If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth”) and periodically commentated for NPR and BBC.
When the 2008 economic demise decimated the freelance market, Hendrix enrolled in the Clarion Writers Workshop at the University of California at San Diego. “I had one skill, which was typing. It was getting a little late to go to law school,” he deadpans. There, he began to take his work more seriously, dabbling in fiction and writing some early self-published work and manuscripts that “shall forever remain in my drawer or on my hard drive,” he vows. In 2012, he co-authored a YA novel, The White Glove War (Poppy), with his friend and fellow Charlestonian Katie Crouch. But the thought that he might one day threaten King’s horror dominion never occurred to the Porter-Gaud graduate.
Hendrix embraced the genre after he began sharing his fiction—mostly sci-fi and fantasy with a little horror in the mix—and realized it was the terror-tinged pieces that resonated most with his friends and readers. He stuck with it, discovering he enjoyed it. “Horror is really about the world around us, and that’s why I like it. It’s about the here and now, not some other world, some other place,” he says. In 2014, his career shifted from freelance boy wonder to fresh-faced horror newcomer when Quirk Books published Horrorstör, Hendrix’s first novel and possibly the first-ever umlauted horror title. Clever, creepy, and quirky to the core, this tale of a haunted Orsk, (Hendrix’s fictional version of Ikea) complete with a knock-off catalog cover, demonstrated his brilliance at taking conventional horror tropes and giving them oozing, fresh blood—or in this case, fresh Scandinavian furniture polish.
“We all knew he was either going to be a brilliant author or media mogul or end up in jail; we just didn’t know which one.” —Katie Crouch, friend and fellow author
“What I do is apply the reality principle to a genre that has accumulated a lot of bad habits,” Hendrix explains. Back in 2009 when Barnes & Nobles nixed their horror section, the genre’s established writers were mostly defaulting to clichés, and the bigger-name horror authors either weren’t publishing much or doing so with smaller presses. “The genre was underpopulated, and I felt like there could be more books that offered more fun. Like, of course, a furniture superstore would be haunted,” he says, riffing off Ikea’s entrapping mazes and death-by-DIY assembly.
In Hendrix’s dark realms, if a svelte, seductive vampire were to surface in 2019, certainly he’d seek the cover and anonymity of a genteel small town, and a bookish one at that—like Hendrix’s childhood haunt, the Old Village. “And someone doing an exorcism today would be an evangelical, right? They’d thrive on the rush, the one-on-one contact,” he adds, referencing My Best Friend’s Exorcism. “The idea of the Lemon Brothers as body-building evangelicals and exorcists just made sense to me.”
What also makes sense to Hendrix is that fear is fundamental, an essential, universal emotion and thus fertile literary ground. Fear, he understands, can be cathartic. An adrenalin boost—or stab—of horror allows us as readers to confront our anxieties, our daily terrors, while keeping them at arm’s length (unless of course, you’re Mark, the unfortunate character in How to Sell a Haunted House who has his arm sawed off). Yes, a pandemic is lurking all around us; yes, climate change may or may not mean the planet is about to meet its own Freddy Kruger, but in the (mostly) safe pages of a wickedly entertaining, macabre master like Hendrix, we can be frightened out of our pants and also laugh those pants right off, at least until the next ghastly scene.
To readers equally enthralled by Hendrix’s fast-paced action and endearing characters, as well as those who can picture every scene as if reading from a screenplay—like actress Charlize Theron who bought the film rights to The Final Girl Support Group (soon to be an HBO Max series, with Hendrix as an executive producer)—the fact that his first love was neither journalism nor writing but theater won’t be a surprise.
In high school, he acted in plays at Charleston’s Chopstick Theater. “I wrote and produced one on Edgar Allan Poe,” he says. “Chopstick presented a lot of comedia, and the best version of Cyrano I’ve ever seen. It was an ambitious local theater company.” When his B-minus grade point average disqualified him from school-sponsored extracurriculars, Hendrix went rogue and entered a national playwriting contest on his own, without Porter-Gaud’s sponsorship. “All the other students were writing sincere, passionate plays that were very safe. Ryan Deussing and I did a show about a psychiatrist and serial killer. We won,” he recounts. Their following year’s entry, Breakdance Explosion, was “completely abstract and made no sense, ending with a version of Hamlet on an escargot farm, but it too ended up being super popular.”
The theater bug took Hendrix first to Bennington College in Vermont, known for its drama department—“well, the fact that Bennington didn’t give grades was also a draw,” he admits. But the big city beckoned, and after a year, he transferred to NYU, where he studied sound engineering and philosophy and became an Asian film buff thanks to frequenting the Chinatown movie house, Music Palace. More importantly, NYU is where Hendrix met his wife, Amanda Cohen, the celebrated New York chef-owner of two restaurants: Lekka Burger and the Michelin star-awarded Dirt Candy, for which Hendrix, Cohen, and Ryan Dunlavey co-wrote the first graphic novel cookbook by the same name. After college, the young lovebirds (who were actually then already secretly married, thanks to a “ain’t-no-biggie” dare, but that’s a whole other surprise-ending thriller…) lived briefly in Hong Kong and then in Los Angeles, where they earned extra cash as movie extras. After moving back to Manhattan, Hendrix co-founded the New York Asian Film Festival in 2002—it has since moved to Lincoln Center and celebrated its 20th anniversary last year.
His penchant for the theatrical is evident at any Grady Hendrix author event, which, unsurprisingly, isn’t anything like a traditional book signing. “At my first-ever bookstore reading somewhere in rural Pennsylvania, I spent an excruciating afternoon with the only person who showed up—and who, it turns out, wasn’t even there to see me—and vowed never again,” he says. These days, his author gigs are well-attended, uproarious one-man “shows”—part stand-up comedy, part riveting, rapid-fire encapsulation of every weird cultural, psychological, and historical fact about vampires, or vintage dime-store horror novels, or serial killers. To get a sense of his rampant imagination and dagger-sharp wit, listen to an episode of Super Scary Haunted Homeschool, a podcast in which Hendrix “brings his lunacy directly into your earholes, educating you on the history of horror in a way that will have you screaming for mercy. But inside your house, no one can hear you scream,” he warns, a Bela Lugosi laugh echoing maniacally.
Dynamic Duo: Hendrix is hardly the only creative, accomplished one in the family. His wife, Amanda Cohen (left with Hendrix at their rehearsal dinner, which in a plot twist for guests was revealed to be their 10th wedding anniversary), is the chef-owner of the Michelin-star-awarded New York restaurant, Dirt Candy. With Ryan Dunlavey, they co-authored a graphic novel cookbook based on it.
The Final Guy
None of this—The New York Times best-seller lists, the film adaptations, the fan adoration, the bizarre interests and nerdy expertise, the bedeviling charm and hyperdrive sense of humor—is a surprise to those who knew him when. “Sunshine” grew up as the youngest of four and only son of Grady senior, a retired MUSC cardiologist, and Shirley, a native Charlestonian and former MUSC nurse, administrator, and researcher; avid reader; and longtime member of the Literary Guild of Greater Charleston, the inspiration for The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. “He had no choice but to become a clever storyteller,” explains his mother. “The rule at our dinner table was that if you were going to tell a story, it had to be interesting to everyone. And with three older sisters, Grady got shut down a lot. ‘Nope, not interesting,’ they would say. So, poor thing, he learned to perfect his plot twists and turns, because he had to. His sisters happily take full credit for his success.”
In the Hendrix household, books were abundant and reading highly valued, ranking right up there with Shirley’s pickled shrimp. “When I told my mom I’d gotten a contract for my first book, she was so psyched. Then when I told her it was a horror story, you could see the smile dim and strain,” he laughs. “Horror isn’t her thing, but my parents and sisters are all hugely proud that I’m making a living by writing.”
“The rule at our dinner table was that if you were going to tell a story, it had to be interesting.... And with three older sisters, Grady got shut down a lot.” —Shirley Hendrix
“Grady was always outside of the box, like really outside of the box. He was always getting into trouble at school, but for creative reasons, and we bonded over that,” says Katie Crouch, an accomplished novelist in her own right. The two have been close friends since suffering through fourth-grade cotillion together. “All the other boys were either terrified or mean, and Grady was the one who was funny and looked nice,” she says. Though his mediocre high school grades didn’t reflect it, “it was clear to everyone, teachers and classmates, that Grady was absolutely brilliant,” she adds. “But when Mrs. Gibson assigned us a story, his would go a million miles outside what it was supposed to do. He was too bright of a light for our school, which in the ’80s was straight-laced and conservative. He was always pushing the edge. We all knew he was either going to be a brilliant author or media mogul or end up in jail; we just didn’t know which one.”
According to Crouch, her friend and one-time beau has this enduring tug to his hometown. “He’s very Charlestonian; there’s something about Grady’s sense of humor that gets the city’s wacky side,” she says. “For all his travel and years in New York, he is very Southern. He keeps returning.” Indeed, the familiar routes down McCants Drive and Coleman Boulevard mark the well-trodden and terrifying territory in How to Sell a Haunted House. “Charleston is a weird place, right? I mean South Carolina has the largest colony of free-range rhesus monkeys and had a nuke dropped on it. There’s lots of strange, Gothic stuff here,” he says. Good material for a writer who revels in the strange and grotesque.
Where Charleston blue bloods see elegant St. Cecilia Ball gowns and secret-society tradition, Hendrix sees debutantes dabbling in the occult. Where Instagrammers post picturesque images of white-clapboard homes on Pitt Street, he conjures yet-to-be-renovated ranches haunted by evil puppets, creepy dolls, and buried family secrets. Hendrix claims How to Sell a Haunted House is his last book to be set in the Lowcountry, but who knows? The only certainty is that the Holy City’s horror genius has a mighty talent for casting a spell, and ghosts have a way of coming back.
Roll out the Bloody Red Carpet
A movie-lovers guide to Hendrix-inspired horror flicks, many executive produced or written by the author himself
Meet the Author:
For the release of his latest novel, How to Sell a Haunted House, Grady Hendrix performs a one-man show and book signing, with a VIP reception, at The Riviera Theater on Friday, January 20. For ticket prices and more information, visit buxtonbooks.com.
Scared Silly: Listen to an episode of Hendrix’s podcast, Super Scary Haunted Homeschool.