“Whenever the phone rang late at night, I lay in my narrow bed and listened.”
John Searles‘ quietly eerie Help for the Haunted (William Morrow & Company) creeps back and forth between the present and the past, with one horrible event acting as the hinge between the two: the murder of teenaged Sylvie Mason’s parents in a church one snowy night. Sylvie takes us through the events leading up to her parent’s murder, revisiting moments of significance while she also searches her memory for clues as to what happened that night, revisiting events that are tinged with possession and ghosts, for Sylvie’s parents were notorious exorcists of a sort. Sylvie also carries us through her present, as she and her older sister struggle to get by on their own, and to deal with the ghosts that their parents left behind; even in the wake of their deaths, there are still those that resent the work that they did, and there are still things left wakeful and angry in the basement of their house, where Sylvie’s parents often did their work.
I really dug this book up until the end. I still dug it then, but I was left with some questions and a niggling sense of unease. Let’s start with the good points.
The non-linear, constantly shifting plotline softly meanders back and forth between the past and the present, without ever losing tension; in fact, the quiet shifts in time make the forward progression of the narrative all the more taut and urgent. The supernatural is always present and consistently creepy without necessarily feeling gimmicky; this isn’t a typical ghost story, in which the protagonists walk into a haunted house, with constantly escalating events that point to unquestionable ghostly presence. The supernatural is always present, but it is also always potentially something other than what it seems; this tension, between belief and skepticism, was one of the constant and most well-rendered elements of the story. I loved the idea, carried through to the end, that regardless of whether or not something is “real,” it’s our belief that gives it power.
The characters were well realized and dynamic. Sylvie is an excellent narrator, and her moral confusion as she tries to piece together what the hell happened to her parents and how both she and her sister fit into that greater narrative is well rendered and believable.
My major issue with this book is going to come with a big, fat spoiler alert. If you plan on reading it (and I highly suggest you do), please don’t read the next paragraph.
The final reveal of the murderer left a really sour taste in my mouth, for a couple of reasons. One, because it felt like it came completely out of nowhere. There was no sense of AHA! THAT DASTARD, I KNEW IT! It was more a sense of…what the hell? Who? Two, because, I’m sorry, but can we please NOT fall back on some crazy thwarted lesbian plot device? It felt like a totally insincere cop-out, and again, what? We don’t know this character AT ALL, and therefore whatever motive she may have had made absolutely no sense. It felt all the more glaringly weird and out of place considering how quiet and well-considered the rest of the novel was.
Bottom line: this is a really solid, creepy, and well-written mystery. I was fully absorbed in this macabre dysfunctional family drama from page one. Check it out. Or not. Go boil your own heads, see if I care.
For music, I chose Doomriders’ “Midnight Eye,” just because it’s always felt kind of melancholy and introspective to me. Just like Sylvie.
Where I got it: the library