Book Review: HELP FOR THE HAUNTED by John Searles
William Morrow, September 17, 2013 ISBN: 978-0-06-077963-4 (hardcover)
The great horror master H.P. Lovecraft once said,
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
John Searles, the author of HELP FOR THE HAUNTED, demonstrates how deftly a great deal of fear can be generated in this unique psychological horror/coming-of-age novel. He plumbs terrors which may be supernatural, as well as the awful, sometimes shocking horrors which inhabit every family home. The late 1980’s setting is perfectly constructed. The crowning achievement is the main character, and narrator of the novel, Sylvie.
Like most teenagers, Sylvie Mason (13) feels that she is an outsider. She is a quiet, obedient girl who adores her mother and obeys her father. Sylvie doesn’t have many friends, and spends a lot of time reading and writing. However, Sylvie happens to be right about being treated as an outcast. Her parents, Sylvester (50) and Rose (45) are paranormal investigators (Searles surely modeled them after real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren). Sylvester and Rose are the providers of help for haunted souls. The gossips in their small town of Dundalk, Maryland do speculate and wonder about what strange horrors the Masons keep in their basement. Even as their daughter and an occupant of the house, Sylvie wonders what is really going on in her home.
Sylvie’s older sister, also named Rose (18), is wild. She smokes, she does drugs, she drinks, and she constantly fights with Sylvester. Rose left home three days ago. She rings her parents from a payphone in town, and asks her parents to meet her on neutral ground, at their parish church. Sylvie’s parents do not want to leave her home alone, so the three of them drive in a blizzard to the church. Sylvie waits in the back seat of the car after first her father, and then her mother, goes into the church to speak with Rose. She falls asleep, wakes up, and ventures inside as well. What she discovers changes her life in a permanent, drastic way. Yet, while events may be unalterable, Sylvie gradually finds her way to helping her own haunted self.
It is easy to lose oneself in Mr. Searles story. He has written a very modern Gothic novel. Sylvie is the traditional virgin maiden who possesses an innocent, delicate nature. She witnesses and encounters terrible, frightening and mysterious experiences. While Sylvie begins as a young woman in distress, she does fight her afflictions and does not disappoint. It was such a great pleasure to spend hours with such a complex and intricate character. Sylvie and Rose’s relationship contains all the elements of a real sister relationship, at times savage, then tender, and always full of fierce love. John Searles is a thoughtful novelist whose talent and tremendous empathy enables the reader to fully engage with this fascinating tale.