Help for the Haunted by John Searles

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Reviewed by Victoria Best.

Lying in bed, 14-year-old Sylvie Mason hears a telephone call summoning her parents out into the middle of a snowy Baltimore night. This isn’t unusual; her parents are demonologists, a profession that has brought notoriety on the family in often unwelcome ways. Responding to emergency calls from souls in torment is simply part of what they do, but this night things will be very different. Taken from the comfort of her bed, Sylvie is told to wait in the car as first her father and then her mother enter what appears to be a deserted church. Time passes, and then she is startled awake by the sound of gunfire.

After this dramatic opening, the narrative splits into two strands, one detailing the events that led up to the murder of Sylvie’s parents, the other moving forward from the moment she and her older sister, Rose, are left to their own devices. The storytelling is remarkably skillful as we switch back and forth in time. In the past, we track the growing reputation of her parents as her ambitious father forces the family onto the lecture circuit and into all sorts of difficult situations. Sylvie’s mother is the one with the real talents; her innate goodness seems to have the power to calm and soothe the troubled, although she also bears the brunt of whatever misery or wickedness their clients release. Things come to a head when they take Abigail Lynch into their home to look after, or seen from another direction, when Abigail is dumped upon them by her frustrated father, an itinerant preacher. It’s Abigail’s father who is currently charged with their murder.

Abigail comes into their lives during one summer when Sylvie’s sister, Rose, is absent. Rose is a piece of work; angry and rebellious and fiercely determined to debunk her parent’s religiosity as a crude hustle performed on the innocent. Having clashed antlers with her father once too often, Rose is sent away to reform school, leaving a vacancy in the family which Abigail tries to fill. After the death of their parents, Rose is back, nominally in charge of the household but as irresponsible and reckless as they come. We know that she was the person on the phone that night, telling her parents to go to the church, and we also know that Sylvie is covering up for her, though she herself is not entirely sure what part Rose played. Driven by grief and the unbearable nature of her home life, Sylvie starts to ask questions of the suspicious people around them – a journalist who wrote a book condemning her parents, an ex-boyfriend of Rose’s who seems overly keen to help, the anonymous donor who keeps leaving food on their doorstep that Rose throws away, convinced it is poisoned. Sylvie is clever, a source of persecution from others up until now. But in the aftermath of her parents’ murders, she is determined to use her wits to find out what happened, no matter what dangers she must confront.

Although this is a novel that deals upfront with the supernatural, it is by no means a sensational paranormal thriller, and readers should tailor their expectations accordingly. Instead what we get is a shifting panorama of views around uncanny experiences. Sylvie’s mother suggests to the journalist who interviews her: ‘What is prayer but meditation? What is a demon but a fear that lives inside us, one we cannot easily conquer on our own? If you prefer those words, it’s all right by me.’ And Rose is an ever present source of cynicism with her own route to insight. Arguing over a supposedly possessed doll named Penny that seems to make their mother physically ill, she rages:

Now that people know she’s here in the house, Penny will just keep influencing things. Look at Mom and Dad. They believe and it’s changed them already. It’s changed the whole feeling in this house, too. It’s like the air is harder to breathe. That’s what belief does, Sylvie. Whether something is true or not is beside the point.

This is much more a psychological novel than a paranormal one, and it offers an intriguing challenge to forms of belief that remain widespread in our culture, regardless of science. Even the persecution that the Mason family must tolerate at the hands of those wishing to show their angry contempt is still a deep-rooted relationship to something perceived as highly threatening.

What makes the novel so gripping is the relationship between the good daughter, Sylvie, and the bad daughter, Rose. They are both such engaging characters in their different ways, though Rose is the polar opposite of sympathetic. Her adolescent rebelliousness is brilliantly portrayed, as is Sylvie’s compulsion to do everything asked of her. Sylvie’s good girl behaviour is finally forced to break down as her own investigations throw up troubling conclusions. In one interview with the detective who has been coaching her in her testimony against Albert Lynch, she is obliged to confess how uncertain she is that Lynch was the man in the church.

If I turned around, I knew what I’d see behind me…It was the look of a person realising you were not who they thought you were – or more specifically, not who they needed you to be. It seemed to me I had a lifetime of those looks ahead; the world felt that full of endless opportunities to let people down, to break their hearts in little ways, in big ways too, each and every day.

Ultimately this is an unusual and compelling coming-of-age story as much as it is a thriller. I expected to enjoy it, but was surprised by how much I admired the depth of its psychological insights and the detail of its storytelling. With beautifully wrought characters and a gripping murder plot, this was a cut above your average girl-in-peril story. I loved it.

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Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.

John Searles, Help for the Haunted (Sphere, September 2014) 978-0751555905, 432 pages, paperback.

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