Help For The Haunted by John Searles begins with the murder of Rose and Sylvester Mason in a church, partially witnessed by their daughter Sylvie who was sitting outside in the car. The three of them had set out for the church after receiving a late night phone call, which we learn is a common occurrence in the house, because Sylvie’s devoutly Christian parents had an unusual profession: they helped people who were troubled by demons, and traveled the country giving lectures on their supernatural experiences.
The story then alternates between a few months after the murder, and the years building up to it, during which we learn about Sylvie and her older sister Rose’s odd lives, and follow Sylvie’s struggle to find her parents’ killer. Albert Lynch – the father of one of the Mason’s “patients” who ran away – is in jail awaiting Sylvie’s testimony against him, but she is not certain that he’s the figure she saw at the church. Things are not adding up and little by little, she begins to sort out the clues and separate the supernatural from reality, with the help of Sam Meekin, a reporter who wrote a discrediting book about her parents, her recovering alcoholic uncle Howie who was at odds with her father, Rose’s ex-boyfriend Derreck and the mysterious lady who leaves food for the two sisters on their doorstep.
Searles keeps the reader in prolonged suspense by doling out only so much information at a time; for example, early on, the girls find a Raggedy Ann doll thrown in their yard by local teenagers, and it’s understood that this is a common insult, but the reason is not immediately explained. In fact, he doesn’t even make it clear at first that it is a Raggedy Ann, describing it in a vague, almost menacing way. We also don’t learn for quite awhile the alarming fact that the parents allowed “haunted individuals” to stay in the basement, even though we know that the souvenirs of their cases are kept down there, and that since the parents’ death, a light has turned on, and Sylvie is too scared to investigate.
Sylvie was always the good daughter, who excelled in school and believed in her parents’ work, while Rose was angry, rebellious and derisive of it. Rose’s belligerent attitude and a flashback scene where she tortures a nanny make her a repulsive character for most of the book, even a possible suspect for the murder. I found myself excitedly suspecting nearly every character, as Searles slowly reveals the complicated relationships the Masons had with everyone. The damaging details of Meekin’s book aren’t specified for quite awhile, but we learn that they are asked to leave their local church and that Albert Lynch, after seemingly abandoning his creepy daughter Abigail with them for months, had started threatening them.
While the fame-seeking father Sylvester keeps causing the reader to doubt, especially as we learn that his brother Howie thinks he’s a fraud, the gentle, sincere mother Rose continually draws us back in, especially when we finally get the story of the Raggedy Ann doll, Penny (which ends up well-known in the town thanks to Meekin’s reporting). The sisters were waiting at the car when the Masons emerged from the home of bereaved parents who claimed that Penny moved around the house on her own, and they watched their mother Rose cling to the doll tightly all the way home, becoming sicker and sicker all the way. And then there are Sylvie’s toy horses which she keeps finding snapped apart, until the doll is moved into the basement!
There are many enjoyable spooky moments, as well as lots of reasons for disbelief, suspicion and frustration as the mystery slowly unravels, coming to a dramatic, frightening climax that presents one character in an entirely new light. The idea that demons don’t have to be supernatural works well throughout the story, along with themes of hypocrisy, intolerance and religion. The only fault I can find in the novel is that, despite the good character development, Searles’s dialogue sometimes sounds more like narration than natural speech; it sometimes includes description or a sentence structure that just doesn’t sound like anything someone would say.
Despite that, this is one of those absorbing novels that’s hard to put down. As Derrick tells Sylvie, “It’s not the end of the world if you don’t always know all the answers,” but the whole time I was reading, I was dying to know!
Image via HarperCollins website