Anne Rivers Siddons is a writer of literary fiction whose one foray into the horror genre is this remarkable 1978 novel, The House Next Door
. The setting is a wealthy suburb in Atlanta where an ambitious young architect is building a dramatically contemporary house. The novel uses a frame device to put three short stories under a single cover: as each of three families moves into the house in succession, we watch the bad things that happen to them and eventually force them to leave. But the frame itself--the observations of an urbane and sophisticated couple who live next door and become close friends with the architect--is the most deeply involving story in the book.
Stephen King was so impressed by The House Next Door that when he wrote Danse Macabre, his personal tour of the horror genre, he sought out Siddons for an interview. She told him, "The haunted house has always spoken specially and directly to me as the emblem of particular horror. Maybe it's because, to a woman, her house is so much more than that: it is kingdom, responsibility, comfort, total world to her.... It is an extension of ourselves; it tolls in answer to one of the most basic chords mankind will ever hear.... So basic is it that the desecration of it, the corruption, as it were, by something alien takes on a peculiar and bone-deep horror and disgust."
Siddons was also fascinated by how the supernatural has the power to disturb the complacent rich and their comfortable little world: "What has the unspeakable and the unbelievable got to do with second homes and tax shelters and private schools for the kids and a pâté in every terrine and a BMW in every garage? Primitive man might howl before his returning dead and point; his neighbor would see, and howl along with him.... The resident of Fox Run Chase who meets a ghoulie out by the hot tub is going to be frozen dead in his or her Nikes on the tennis courts the next day if he or she persists in gabbling about it. And there he is, alone with the horror and ostracized on all sides. It's a double turn of the screw."
One caveat: some people find the ending a false note that mars the effect. Even so, The House Next Door is an exquisite horror novel. --Fiona Webster
Anne River Siddons was born in 1936 in Fairburn, Georgia, a small railroad town just south of Atlanta, where her family has lived for six generations. The only child of a prestigious Atlanta lawyer and his wife, Siddons was raised to be a perfect Southern belle. Growing up, she did what was expected of her: getting straight A's, becoming head cheerleader, the homecoming queen, and then Centennial Queen of Fairburn. At Auburn University she studied illustration, joined the Tri-Delt sorority, and "did the things I thought I should. I dated the right guys. I did the right activities," and wound up voted "Loveliest of the Plains."
During her student years at Auburn, the Civil Rights Movement first gained national attention, with the bus boycott in Montgomery and the integration of the University of Alabama. Siddons was a columnist for the Auburn Plainsman at the time, and she wrote, "an innocuous, almost sophomoric column" welcoming integration. The school's administration requested she pull it, and when she refused, they ran it with a disclaimer stating that the university did not share her views. Because she was writing from the deep South, her column gained instant national attention and caused quite "a fracas." When she wrote a second, similarly-minded piece, she was fired. It was her first taste of the power of the written word.
After graduation, she worked in the advertising department of a large bank, doing layout and design. But she soon discovered her real talents lay in writing, as she was frequently required to write copy for the advertisements. "At Auburn, and before that when I wrote local columns for the Fairburn paper, writing came so naturally that I didn't value it. I never even thought that it might be a livelihood, or a source of great satisfaction. Southern girls, remember, were taught to look for security."
She soon left the bank to join the staff of the recently founded Atlanta magazine. Started by renowned mentor, Jim Townsend, the Atlanta came to life in the 1960's, just as the city Atlanta was experiencing a rebirth. As one of the magazine's first senior editors, Siddons remembers the job as being, "one of the most electrifying things I have ever done in terms of sheer joy." Her work at the magazine brought her in direct contact with the Civil Rights Movement, often sitting with Dr. King's people at the then-black restaurant Carrousel, listening to the best jazz the city had to offer. At age 30, she married Heyward Siddons, eleven years her senior, and the father of four sons from a previous marriage.
Her writing career took its next leap when Larry Ashmead, then an editor at Doubleday, noticed an article of hers and wrote to her asking if she would consider doing a book. She assumed the letter was a prank, and that some of her friends had stolen Doubleday stationary. When she didn't respond, Ashmead tracked her down, and Siddons ended up with a two book contract: a collection of essays which became John Chancellor Makes Me Cry, and a novel of her college days, which became Heartbreak Hotel, and was later turned into a film, Heart of Dixie, starring Ally Sheedy.
As Ashmead moved on, from Doubleday to Simon & Shuster, then to Harper & Row, Siddons followed, writing a horror story, The House Next Door, which Stephen King described as a prime example of "the new American Gothic," and then Fox's Earth and Homeplace, about the loss of a beloved home.
It was in 1988, with the publication of her fifth book, the best-selling Peachtree Road, that Siddons graduated to real commercial success. Described by her friend and peer, Pat Conroy, as "the Southern novel for our generation." With almost a million copies in print, Peachtree Road ushered Siddons onto the literary fast track. Since then the novels have been coming steadily, about one each year, with her readership and writer's fees increasing commensurately. In 1992 she received $3.25 million from HarperCollins for a three book deal, and then, in 1994, HarperCollins gave Siddons $13 million for a four book deal.
Now, she and her Heyward shuttle between a sprawling home in Brookhaven, Atlanta, and their summer home in Brooklin, Maine. She finds Down East, "such a relief after the old dark morass of the South. It's like getting a gulp of clean air...I always feel in Maine like I'm walking on the surface of the earth. In the South, I always feel like I'm knee-deep." But she still remains tied to her home in the South, where she does most of her writing. Each morning, Siddons dresses, puts on her makeup and then heads out to the backyard cottage that serves as her office. And each night, she and her husband edit the day's work by reading it aloud over evening cocktails.
Siddons' success has naturally brought comparisons with another great Southern writer, Margaret Mitchell, but Siddons insists that the South she writes about is not the romanticized version found in Gone With the Wind. Instead, her relationship with the South is loving, but realistic. "It's like an old marriage or a long marriage. The commitment is absolute, but the romance has long since worn off...I want to write about it as it really is: I don't want to romanticize it."