“Whenever the phone rang late at night, I lay in my narrow bed and listened.” So begins John Searles’s latest novel, HELP FOR THE HAUNTED, which describes a fairly typical night in the life of Sylvie Mason and her family. Her parents, Rose and Sylvester Mason, are what could best be described as “demonologists.” They provide aid and assistance for those poor souls troubled by spirits and apparitions. It wasn’t unusual for the couple to get emergency calls at odd hours, summoning them to help their troubled clients find peace. But as common as this occurrence is for Sylvie and her rebellious sister, Rose, there is something decidedly different about this particular night --- something dark, something sinister.
Following the desperate caller’s instructions, the couple is lured from the comfort of their cozy Maryland home on a chilly winter night to an old church on the outskirts of town. Since Rose wasn’t at home, Sylvie had to accompany her parents, sleeping in the backseat while they went to handle their ghostly duty. It would be the last time Sylvie would see them alive.
"Blending equal parts ghost story with coming-of-age tale, Searles proves quite the gifted alchemist in his third novel, which is reminiscent of early Stephen King..."
The story weaves back and forth in time, and we next see Sylvie a year later, now living in the care of her older sister. She’s still reeling from the death of her parents, and from the guilt that she’s holding back what could be a very important piece of information from the police. We learn that the Masons were murdered by Albert Lynch, a man they knew and had helped with his troubled daughter, Abigail. The Masons used prayer to help those possessed by evil spirits. That chilly winter night, Sylvie was the lone eyewitness who said she saw Albert in the basement of that church. What she neglected to tell the police detective was that the phone call that summoned her parents to their deaths did not come from Albert. It came from her sister, Rose. Sylvie’s young mind perishes the thought: Could Rose have had a hand in their parents’ murder? “Never once had I mentioned the larger blame I placed on my sister for making that call and luring them to the church or my role in not telling the police about it, but perhaps Boshoff had sensed something in my silence, the way my mother once taught me to do.”
Blending equal parts ghost story with coming-of-age tale, Searles proves to be quite the gifted alchemist in his third novel, which is reminiscent of early Stephen King, especially stories from collections like NIGHT SHIFT, such as “The Body,” which was the basis for the film Stand by Me. HELP FOR THE HAUNTED also skillfully creates the perfect sinister atmosphere, not unlike the novels of Tana French or Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books. You’ll feel the chill in the air and the hair on the back of your neck stand up as you read...and God help you if someone sneaks up behind you!
But apart from the murder mystery, at its core, this is a story about loss, especially the loss of a parent and how, after one suffers through something like that, nothing is ever the same: “If I keep my eyes closed, I feel her there again. I hear her breath, hear her voice telling me, ‘each of us is born into this life with a light inside of us…. What’s most important is to never let that light go out, because when you do, it means you’ve lost yourself to the darkness. It means you’ve lost your hope. And hope is what makes the world a beautiful place.”’
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on September 27, 2013