Click here to read Steven Rosen's review or here for Michael Leonard's take on Help for the Haunted.
Family secrets are at the heart of this macabre mystery, the murder of two unusual parents one dark night in Dundalk, Maryland. Younger daughter Sylvie, whose vague memories of the night of violence haunt her as the trial date looms closer, is fourteen and susceptible to coercion—the “good girl” of the family, as opposed to older sister Rosie’s intractability. Ever the peacemaker, Sylvie wants to give the authorities what they want, including the man arrested for the murders: Albert Lynch. Like the winding path of memory Sylvie traverses to get to the truth of that fatal night, Help for the Haunted is a novel layered in half-truths and unfocused images.
From the start, when Sylvie begins describing her family and her current status (Rosie is her guardian), details are shrouded, much like the work undertaken by Rose and Sylvester Mason. The couple dabbles in spiritualism, albeit heavily cloaked in Christianity. Living in a Tudor home with their two daughters, the property peppered with “no trespassing” signs, Rose and Sylvester have even had a book written about them by local journalist Sam Heekin: The Unusual Career of Sylvester and Rose Mason. While Sylvie doesn’t disclose the true nature of her parents’ work on behalf of the haunted, she reiterates her father’s frequent warning to keep family business private.
Back and forth the novel goes, between current day (the dead parents) and the many strange occurrences over the years (the live parents), made more dramatic by Rosie’s frequent arguments and Sylvester’s determination that his older daughter should “get her head right.” Between the muffled struggles with dark forces in the basement of the Mason home and Rosie’s rebellious outbursts against a life she finds intolerable, there are late night telephone calls and meetings with strangers purporting to need help with “troubled” children, a rag doll the Masons bring home to relieve a suffering family from its influence, and the recordings made by Sylvester when participating in Heekin’s book. The obvious dysfunction and secrecy in the family are critical elements—especially when contrasted with the holiness of Rose Mason and the accoutrements of Christianity displayed in the home—but there is little to indicate exactly how the Masons’ work creates an atmosphere of danger that could result in their deaths. Certainly teenaged Rosie’s outrageous antics add to the chaos, Sylvie perpetually anxious and vulnerable to suggestion.
Somehow, the author manages to unravel a tangle of events, characters and the bizarre behaviors of a man who wants to help those in need of spiritual assistance but craves as well the publicity such work might garner. Is there evil in the basement where the Masons work so diligently to alleviate the pain of the suffering, evil that sets murder in motion? Are the daughters free of the taint of their parents’ work, or the next victims? Does Sylvie know who shot her parents, and is she willing, finally, to tell the truth? This strangely constructed novel is filled with unlikable characters: Sylvie strains credibility with her nonsensical devotion to telling people what they want to hear or keeping sacred family secrets; Mr. and Mrs. Holier-Than-Thou, ever ready to save a soul in distress; a disgruntled uncle who finds solace in the bottle; Rosie raging at the world.
From the start, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being manipulated through purposeful obfuscation, each chapter adding another layer of absurdity to the plot. Each new detail reluctantly revealed only created more discrepancies. If I were Sylvie and fourteen, I might entertain the scenario presented, but I’m not. There is a reasonable answer to every event, and masquerading behind the imagination of a child does not sustain a plot built on smoke, mirrors and creepy people with god complexes. I know this author has a huge following, but I am too disappointed to ever bother with his work again.