Help for the Haunted
John Searles
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Buy *Help for the Haunted* by John Searlesonline

Help for the Haunted
John Searles
William Morrow
368 pages
September 2013
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read Luan Gaines' review or here for Steven Rosen's take on Help for the Haunted.

With page-turning authenticity, Searles conjures up a spooky, thought-provoking mystery possessing the mien of a literary novel. He then interjects it with a touch of the macabre as he details the odd relationship between Sylvie, her older sister, Rose, and their mother and father, Rose and Sylvester Mason who have spent much of their professional lives seeking out people haunted by spirits and demons.

The tale opens soon after Sylvie’s parents are gone, leaving Sylvie and Rose to pick up the pieces of their shattered existence. We know little of what actually transpired that snowy winter’s night in Saint Bartholomew’s Church. Encased in their suburban Dunalk home (a faded Tudor hidden among thinning cedars and birch groves), Sylvie is well aware that there are only three days until Halloween. The yearly celebration lends a foreboding tone to what has already been a terrible year for the girls.

Largely left to their own devices, the girls survive on a diet of popsicles. Rose proves to be the more recalcitrant of the two, her wayward and volatile temperament only increasing the propensity for neighborhood gossip. Sylvie is endlessly distracted by noises in the basement—a kind of rattling, as though things are breaking and smashing, the sounds paralleling the events that occurred back before the bare bulb went dark, back when “its yellowy glow still oozed from the filmy casement window by the dirt.” Like a ghost haunting an abandoned house on a hill, Sylvie doesn’t understand the things her parents kept in the basement, though she remembers being questioned by Detective Rummel over what actually happened that terrible night when she stepped inside that church.

Rendering Sylvie with flesh-and-blood emotions that touch the heart, Searles allows his heroine to unfold her life in the first person as she takes it upon herself to unlock the mystery of her parents’ untimely demise. While mysterious, spooky clues are peppered all throughout their ramshackle house, attention turns to Rose when Sylvie stumbles upon a letter written to her sister with the return address in Baltimore detailing their father’s encounters with the paranormal. Combined with a book that surfaces about Sylvester and Rose’s life written by a reporter named Sam Heekin, the letter—along with Rose’s strange behavior—forces Sylvie into a sudden tug-of-war between “believing and not believing.”

Searles fleshes out his modern horror tale (not for the impatient reader) as Sylvie researches the shadowy history of her parents and their strange connection to a sinister doll called Penny that ends up slumped in her mother’s old rocker, which her father dredged up from the basement. The doll’s sudden arrival into the tale adds to the supernatural tone, its mere presence doing something evil to Rose and interfering with the bizarre façade she has maintained since that night in the church.

This is a story of long twists and turns in the vein of Stephen King, some of which are satisfyingly anticipated and others which remain slightly ensconced in too much speculation. Sylvie’s relationship with her estranged Uncle Howie is clogged in a mire of misunderstanding, and she wonders at Rose’s misplaced anger regarding her, softened only by their mutual need for survival. As Sylvie’s puzzle sorts itself out, Searles portrays her as a somewhat kooky, lonely outsider forced into looking at the real world through thick-paned glass that sometimes fogs over or plays tricks depending on the angle the light hits it.

The Masons’ over-the-top belief in spirits and determination to “correct” people’s faults using what are basically parlor-method techniques quickly usher in the dénouement of the story. Yes, Sylvie has come home, yet with each breath, each passing moment, her belief in ghosts only increases her anxiety. A rather strange, long read, the tale’s horrors take us deep into the depths of Sylvie’s mind, the contortion of her personal faith leading us onto the climax where true terror exists, far beyond the physical bounds of reality.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2013

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