John Searles’s fascinating “Help for the Haunted” is all about the Mason family: the parents and their teenage daughters, Sylvie and Rose. The deeply religious parents believe that evil spirits can seize control of people; to combat this horror, they practice demonology. They lecture widely on their beliefs and even bring haunted people into their home to exorcise their demons via prayer. Their crusade brings them increasing celebrity but ultimately leads to their deaths.
That’s no spoiler. We learn at the outset that the couple has been shot to death one snowy night inside a church near their home in a small town outside Baltimore. Having thus begun his story in the middle, Searles proceeds, in alternating chapters, to show us the events leading up to the parents’ deaths and those that follow as the teenage daughters struggle to survive on their own. It’s intricate storytelling, and it works beautifully, as we move back and forth in time to gaze deeply into this troubled family.
Another reason the story works so well is the pitch-perfect narration by Sylvie, the younger daughter, who is 14 for much of the book. Sylvie is the good daughter: smart, brave and resourceful but never goody-goody. She’s just fighting to survive. Rose, four years older, is the rebellious daughter, the one who ridicules her parents’ religious views, sneaks cigarettes, discovers sex and is sent by their father to a harsh school for girls who don’t obey rules.
Here’s Sylvie describing her family: “I knew we didn’t have much money, not even when our parents were alive. People didn’t pay well for the services they provided. They wrote letters begging for help and only occasionally enclosed a check to cover gas or airline tickets. Or they showed up on our doorstep with a glazed look in their eyes, offering promises to undo the debt later if only my parents could make all that had gone wrong in their lives right again.”
The novel is in part a murder mystery: Who killed the parents? An itinerant preacher has been charged. He had handed his troubled daughter over to the Masons but later turned against them. He denies killing anyone, but he’s in jail, facing trial, because Sylvie says she saw him at the murder scene. But do Sylvie and her sister know things they haven’t told the police?
All four of the Masons are admirably drawn. The prideful, self-righteous father is at heart a decent man who wants to help people and who accepts that some victims of “demonic possession” may simply be mentally ill. His wife, a shy and gentle woman, has a rare ability to use her goodness to calm distraught people. Sylvie has inherited her mother’s gentle nature, while rebellious Rose is more like her willful father. After the parents die, we wonder what will happen to these girls, living alone, with little money and no guidance except for a social worker who could use some help herself.
Kids in school ridicule the sisters. Gossip and suspicion at their church force the Masons to stop attending. The girls’ Uncle Howie says he wants to help, but he drinks too much and lives in squalor. A mysterious woman brings the orphaned girls food, but Rose throws it out for fear of poison. A reporter writes harshly about the girls’ father and may have fallen in love with their mother. The parents’ passion for righteousness seems to have brought a curse on the family.
I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did, given my disbelief in the supernatural. But Searles isn’t trying to convert anyone. Rather, he has crafted a strange, spooky world that is absolutely believable. Sweet, precocious, desperate Sylvie is a memorable young striver in the tradition of Scout Finch, and “Help for the Haunted” is an exceptional piece of storytelling, finally about not demons, but human beings who are all too flawed and all too real.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
HELP FOR THE HAUNTED
By John Searles
Morrow. 362 pp. $26.99