FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Aug 21, 2023

What would the neighbors say?

My gramma's house--that is to say the house my mother grew up in--was the sort of ordinary and unremarkable house that is becoming unattainable for the ordinary and unremarkable buyer of today. It was smack in the middle of a dead end street full of perfectly fine small-ish WWII-era houses, each with a nicely manicured, perfectly fine small-ish yard. Vinyl siding, rhododendrons, and azaleas on the outside, wood paneling and fake stone walls on the inside. The wall-to-wall carpeted kitchen had a mustard-yellow fridge and a mustard-yellow (with accents meant to look like wood paneling) stove. It goes without saying that no one in their right mind would ever dream of having wall-to-wall carpeting in the kitchen, but somehow that carpet didn't end up looking like a Jackson Pollock cast-off. That carpet never earned a single stain. No crumb settled on it for longer than the blink of an eye. This is perhaps an even greater indication that the kitchen belonged to no one in their right mind, but ultimately, I suppose that's for history to decide.

Nothing much ever changed in there, as the wood panels and mustard-yellow appliances could attest. Small things, maybe, like a toilet seat (it was clear lucite and had plastic fish embedded in it, because for my gramma, like so many others, the bathroom was a beach). Things--large things, especially--are not to be replaced on a whim. You have the things you have until they no longer function as they should. Perhaps this is residual Depression-era thinking? Or maybe it was just the way it was then, before the age of planned obsolescence and yearly upgrades of so many things we own. 

The street itself was largely unchanging as well, with the houses inhabited by the same families that inhabited them during my mom's youth. Her childhood friends grew up and left like she did, but their parents remained. Houses weren't commodities to be flipped and profited from, they were places you bought and then lived in and then maybe died in. So as time marched on, the folks living in the houses up and down the street skewed older and older. I'm an only child, and when we would go visit grams I was often the only child on the street. 

There were woods out back, just beyond the edge of the yard, but they weren't good woods for playing in. I guess they were in my mom's youth--she told me it was the place for all the neighborhood teens' first ciggies, and one time, one of her brothers found a rusty birdcage and had to get a tetanus shot because somehow he got his lip hooked on it? Kids chew on the darndest things, I guess. Or maybe I'm misremembering that story. As I said, though, by the time I got to those woods they weren't much good to be played in anymore. Worn footpaths that my mother and her brothers and their friends had trampled were long grown over. It was all too wild back there, just a mass of trees and pricker bushes. 

The yard on one side of the house simply blended into the neighbor's yard, which seems a bit weird to me now. No fences separating the two? The property lines were just honored? They never ended up on Justice with Judge Mablean, arguing over leaves landing on a side not their own and remaining unraked?? Wild.

The other side of the yard was separated from the neighbor's by a small wooded lot, also unsuitable for playing in or indulging any Nell-esque fantasies one (aka: I) might have had. I can't tell you how wide it was as I am terrible at figuring distances and heights and all that. (It's good to know one's limitations, and I know I would make a terrible eyewitness.) But it wasn't very wide at all; You could see through the trees into the neighbor's driveway on the other side. Still, it was trees.

Once I got to be too old to, I don't know, run around in circles in the backyard (or whatever it is children do), I would join my mother and her mother at the table (dining room in the colder months, the closed-in porch in the warmer months) as they drank coffee, flipped through Avon catalogs and Star magazines, and engaged in the blandest kind of gossip about the neighbors (nothing truly scandalous ever happened on that block). It's entirely possible that I was born a 70-year-old woman, but even if I hadn't been, this was the time I would have morphed into one. I contributed nothing to their conversations, but I was perfectly content to sit there, a 10-year-old 70-year-old, and soak it all in. I had never seen, say, a Bob Hope movie, but I knew who he was because there he would be, rheumy-eyed and writ large on the cover of Star with a headline proclaiming he was in his LAST DAYS! After my mom wrote down her Avon order (The Avon Lady, whom I never once met or even caught a glimpse of, would be back in a week or two for the orders), I would look through the catalogue and wonder why only men's perfumes came in cool bottles shaped like cowboy boots or cars. 

Incidentally, as an eternal 70-year-old, I still think that coming over for coffee and talking about anything and/or nothing--with or without the catalogues and shitty gossip rags--is a mighty fine way to spend some time.

Anyway, listen, this is how we want a gramma's house to be: new plastic toilet seat fish aside, it should be forever unchanging. The word "outdated" does not--can not--apply to a gramma's house. Even if you can pinpoint the era that was its time, it doesn't matter, for a gramma's decor is timeless. There is comfort in the wood paneling that went up before you were born and (because it's some kind of plastic, you see) will be around long after gramma--and you--are gone.

But of course nothing gold can stay, Ponyboy, not even a gramma's house. 

In a mind-boggling turn of events, someone bought that small wooded lot on the side, knocked down all the trees, and squeezed a new house in there. And I do mean squeezed: the space was so narrow that the house had to situated 90 degrees to what you might expect. The "side" of the new house faced the street, and the "front" faced my gramma's house. And I do mean faced: their front door was rightthere outside her kitchen window. The people who moved in were fine, but lawd, awkwardly plopping the new house in where trees had stood for...well, I'm as bad a judge of time as I am of distances and heights. But it was a long time, I know that much! Theoretically a new house in the neighborhood is fine. But in this instance, both the location and the execution of it were awful.

It was like the infamous "Slutty Island" trip to St Barts in season 5 of Real Housewives of New York, you know? When Aviva (who has a debilitating fear of heights and flying and machinery in general after losing half of one of her legs in a childhood accident involving a massive farming contraption) brought her emotional support husband Reid along with her because she could not bear to fly without him, and some of the other ladies didn't want him to stay in the house with all of them. It was a girls' trip, after all, and as Luann said, having a man stay in the house with them and hang out with them all the time would "change the dynamic."

Mind you, the dynamic was chaotic, what with Luann bringing home that French dude who kind of looked like Johnny Depp for a night of drunken foolin' around but the next day she kept insisting that everyone was wrong, she actually brought home "a group of old Italian friends" and there was no foolin' around at all. But the dynamic did change into a different kind of chaos, for Aviva lost her GD mind that she wasn't greeted with the "grace" and "elegance" she felt she and Reid deserved, which to her mind should have included a party, complete with a banner reading WELCOME AVIVA -- YOU DID IT -- RAH RAH. Long before the trip was over, Ramona would be yelling at Aviva to "Take a Xanax! CALMMM DOWWNNN!" and Aviva would tell Ramona and Sonja that they were "both white trash, quite frankly."

The point is twofold: one, I really love Real Housewives, and two, that new house next to my gramma's really changed the dynamic of the space we had all known for most of, if not all of, our lives. 

No, wait! My point is actually threefold: three, this has all been a too-long-but-I-have-no-editor-here-so-my-heart-will-go-on-for-as-long-as-I-please, meandering into to say that Anne Rivers Siddons's The House Next Door really resonated with me on several levels and boy did I love it.

Perhaps, like me, you first read about this 1978 novel in Stephen King's Danse Macabre, after which you tucked it away in a cobwebby, possibly haunted corner of your brain along with everything else he mentioned in that book that you hadn't yet seen or read. (Side note: after finishing The House Next Door I went back to see what King said about it. He quite likes it but feels that Siddons's characters don't always speak the way people actually speak. I agree to an extent, but I will raise him an "Okay, but people in your books don't always speak the way people actually speak now do they, Mr Cockadoodie Man?")

Perhaps also like me, whenever the book came up over the years you were curious but then you would put off reading it because what is this cover??

Yes yes, books and their covers and something something judging and all that. But as Siddons was not a horror writer and from the image to the fonts to the Pat friggin' Conroy quote, that cover does not say "horror" at all, I thought "Hmm, no."

But! The curiosity remained, and I'm so glad I finally caved to it because this book is all southern gothic in the broad daylight of a contemporary suburb. It's neighborhood gossip and secrets and a haunted house story unlike any I've ever read or seen. 

Walter and Colquitt "Col" Kennedy are a working, well-to-do, (w)childless by choice couple enjoying a loving, quiet existence in their upper middle class Atlanta suburb. When they find out that someone has bought the wooded lot next door with the intention of building a new house in their historic neighborhood, Col in particular is worried that it will, you know. Change the dynamic. 

And of course it does, though not in the way Col or any of her friends might think. The house itself is stunning, designed by a brilliant new architect who has crafted something that looks like it was always there, sprung up from the Earth itself. While they are not excited about having new neighbors, good breeding and manners dictate that the Kennedys are warm and cordial to whomever moves in, welcoming them with open arms and making them a part of the local dinner party circuit.

The newlyweds who commissioned the house in the first place, Buddy and Pie Harralson, are but the first of several couples to move into the house next door. Because as Col comes to realize, the house is...hungry. It takes from those who live there and even from those who spend too much time there, and it ruins them. To spoil all the ways the house destroys lives and, ultimately, the entire neighborhood as it becomes more gluttonous and its evil spreads, well, I don't want to do that even though I have a lot to say about the specifics! I think it's About a Few Things! Maybe we can spoil in the comments?

I will say again that this is unlike any other haunted house story I've come across. This is the birth of a house born bad, so to speak; imagine we saw the story of, say, Hill House and all the tragedies that unfolded within as they happened and not had them relayed to us by characters as a scary story from the past. 

There is no cursed ground under the house. There are no red rooms and purple pig demons and projectile-vomiting nuns here--nothing so carnival "spook house" to be found in this book's pages, that's for sure--but it's still interesting to see The House Next Door as a kind of genteel, moneyed take on The Amityville Horror. "People like us don't appear in People magazine," Col, our narrator, says in the first line of the book. Eventually, however, the Kennedys destroy their reputations and turn to People to tell the story of the house next door because People is the only place that will listen. Col and Walter aren't out to make a buck, they simply want to warn away prospective buyers--but does intention matter when they end up right where the Lutzes did?

(Side note, fuck Clint Eastwood forever for destroying Sondra Locke's career.)

As effective and unsettling as The House Next Door is, it's not likely to leave you awake all night, peeking out from under your covers wondering what that shadow in the corner is. It's a very, very slow burn that is as much neighborhood chit-chat as it is about any kind of hauntings or horror. If you don't think that coming over for coffee and talking about anything and/or nothing is a mighty fine way to spend some time, you won't want to read about characters doing just that--and you may not enjoy this book nearly as much as I did. 

There is a lot of "tell, don't show" at play here, but I think it works with the gossipy nature of the novel. Sometimes it's "Did you hear? Mrs So-and-So is pregnant again" and sometimes it's "Did you hear? Some truly messed up evil shit went down at the house next door!" What can I say, it works for me. We don't often get to feel like voyeurs in a haunted house story, you know what I mean? We, too, are the neighbors wondering at just what is going on over there? And while I certainly don't find the well-to-do denizens of this neighborhood personally relatable, I love that it's not your typical cast of horror characters. It's fascinating to watch them withhold fears and endure the evil in their midst, all in the name of good manners.

Sure, sure, the idea of the house next door being dangerous and evil and the evil spreading and consuming you is a terrifying one. But just imagine, sitting at the table, drinking coffee a flipping through an Avon catalogue while you talk about it! The House Next Door checked so many personal boxes for me, I really didn't want it to end. Who could have guessed I'd feel so strongly about a horror book from a non-horror writer? A horror book with that cover? Stephen King and all the people who have recommended it over the years, I guess. But look, I'm on board now. In fact, after I'm done typing this I'm gonna hang up a banner that says WELCOME ANNE RIVERS SIDDONS -- YOU DID IT -- RAH RAH.


Steve K said...

Because there's no like button, I'm only commenting because I don't want you feel like you're whispering into the void. I enjoyed this piece a lot. Thank you for writing it.

x said...

Oh boy, I LOVE The House Next Door. One of my very favorite spooky house reads. Part of me is sad that she only ever wrote one horror novel, but a larger part respects that she just dipped in with a stone cold classic and then bounced.

I'm the last person to want a genteel, suburban life for myself, nor do I particularly care to drink martinis, but I'll be damned if The House Next Door isn't outstandingly fascinating voyeurism into that life (that also makes me wonder if I should make up a pitcher of martinis?)

Where I landed when I first read it was how much it (before everything goes pear-shaped) presents an alluring vision of sufficient wealth and sufficient ease that's largely inaccessible due to the present gulf between wages and inflation. To some degree it was always a fiction, but moreso now.

Stacie Ponder said...

Aw thank you, Steve, I appreciate it. The lots of comments on blog posts days generally passed with the dawn of the social media age, so I'm definitely grateful when people take the time now! This place still gets some good convos and threads going once in a while like it was in Ye Olde Days and I love it.

X, boy you said it. I scoured the rest of Siddons's output hoping something else would be even gothic- or horror-adjacent because this was so effing good. But how incredible that she was just like "Hmm, I'd like to try writing a horror novel" and then writes a banger that is very much...her? The non-trope-iness of it really speaks to her "outsider" perspective, and the fact that it works so well speaks to her skill as a writer.

I have so much to say about what befalls the people who move in, the Kennedys' reactions to the people who "invade" their neighborhood after they tell their story, and lots more. This book rules so hard!

Stacie Ponder said...

I love that, not least because's not at ALL what we've come to expect a haunted house to look like.

mulholland said...

I love this book too, so glad you're covering it. What did you think about the main character's classist attitude? I think Stephen King found it off-putting in his review.

It's great that you're posting. I hope we get a Shocktober!

Stacie Ponder said...

I think her classism is off-putting in that in real life I don't abide classist people. But in the novel, I loved it because it fit. Col is likable (not that she has to be!) but she's also shitty. Everyone in that neighborhood is, though not purposefully or outright maliciously. I'm sure they would all be shocked anyone would have that impression as they pride themselves on being distinctly Not Shitty, Col and Walter especially.

It's also deliberate, I think, to see what ultimately "brings down" the families who move into the house (or, perhaps, what "ails" them even before they move in): homosexuality, vulnerability and obvious severe mental illness, and being Jewish. Kim, the architect, is convinced that the house is fine: that it simply hasn't had "the right people" living in it yet. This WASPy-ass neighborhood was "invaded" and turned upside down by "others," and it's all the more obvious when Col is calling out the trashy gawkers who come by to see the house. Her veneer of manners and politeness vanishes as she derides them; some of it is warranted: they were surely annoying, if not destructive. But she also makes sure to comment on their appearance, their class, and so on.

Some people think all of this just makes the book homophobic, anti-semitic, etc, but to my mind it's not an endorsement: rather, it's a *commentary* on all that kind of thinking and behavior from the WASPy upper middle class set who pride themselves on being of a station much higher than the rest of us.

we said...

I agree that this book is in no way an endorsement of the worst WASPy aspects of the South. Everything i’ve read about Anne Rivers Siddons makes me think that she was strikingly intelligent, and was probably not afraid to criticize some of the worst Southern attitudes despite living in, and loving the South. I loved this book too! I read it not long after reading Danse Macabre — I think I was more inclined to pick it up sooner than later (sometime in 1984-85) because I found a used copy that actually had a cover that made it look like a horror novel. I found a pic online, it was black with a glowing “X” in “Next. I wish I still had a copy in hand, it’s always stuck with me. I actually moved to a suburban Atlanta neighborhood in 1989, probably close to what she describes in the book. The Atlanta area has changed a lot since then, but I remember there was palpable tension caused by “outsiders” moving to the area at the time — I read more than a few articles and opinion pieces in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution that had the subtext of “Yankee go home” — if not outright text.

I liked this book so much at the time that I picked up another of her books not long after. It was Fox’s Earth, which, while it’s not horror, I recommend. I remember it being a sort of sleazy, soap opera/southern gothic type story. Lurid fun, I guess you could say.

One other thing — did you see that this book was made into a T.V. movie?! It stars Lara Flynn Boyle. It’s streaming on YouTube. I haven’t watched it yet, but saved it to my “Watch Later” list, hopefully I get to it later in the week.

Stacie Ponder said...

Okay I read the synopsis for Fox's Earth and it is now next on my "to read" list, thank you so much for the recommendation! And I did see that there was a movie made but I didn't know it was on YouTube...and now it's next on my "to watch" list. It sounds like it'll be fun but I have no idea how they're going to cram all the stories from the book into 90 minutes...guess I'll find out!

x said...

My very cool 70s book club edition arrived much sooner than anticipated and I love the extremely Katharine Hepburn (but make it 70s) pants vibe in her author photo here:

Astroboymn said...

I adore The House Next Door, read it first in 1978 and reread it every 5-7 years or so. It has that slow-burn aesthetic that I grew up with and I love the diabolical nature of the setup, the heroine and her hubby are pretty screwed from the get-go. So glad you wrote this. I hear there's a TV movie version starring Lara Flynn Boyle, but I've still never seen it.

Also yes: fuck Clint Eastwood, twice on Sundays. Sondra Locke still rules.