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[618] Help For the Haunted – John Searles


No. Actually, I defended them, reminding those parishioners that gossip had no place in the church. It worked for a while. But once that photo of your mother and the doll appeared in the paper—not to mention the new of the hatchet and so many other things kept in your basement—and once Abigail came to live with you, well, after that, no amount of scripture put an end to their gossip and complaints. I don’t know how else to say it, Sylvie, but people were afraid of them. (You & You & You, p.156)

Help for the Haunted revolves around the Mason family in Baltimore suburb. The deeply religious parents believe that evil spirits can seize control of people. They strive to raise their two daughters, Rose and Sylvie, with Christian values but realize, owing to the peculiar nature of their work, they can never grow up like their peers. They practice demonology, hosts seminars, lecture widely on their beliefs, collect artifacts, and even bring possessed people into their home to exorcise their demons by prayer. Reader will get the impression that their increasing celebrity is what ultimately leads to their deaths—right in the opening scene.

All my life until that night, I’d never heard such a horrible and unforgettable sound. When I did, I woke with a start, sitting up in the backseat . . . But no, I heard it again, the second time more ferocious than the first, so loud it seemed to vibrate against my chest, causing my heart to beat faster, my hands to shake. (What Makes You Afraid, p.6)

At the outset Sylvie’s parents were shot to death on a snowy night inside a church near their home. The novel then proceeds, in alternating chapters, moving back and forth in time, to show the events leading up to the death. It’s part mystery, psychological thriller, and coming-of-age story. Fourteen-year-old Sylvie, the narrator, cannot remember what happened the night at the church. She struggles to pursue the mystery, moving closer to knowledge. She sheds insights into the troubled family. Her older sister, Rose, is the rebellious daughter who was later sent away to a harsh school for delinquent girls.

Sylvie’s reminiscences flit back and forth in time and often they are not clearly focused. It takes a while to figure out the relative time frames for different occurrences. The pace of the book is leisurely and even. Red herrings and allusions abound. There’s the moving ill-spirited rag doll Sylvie’s mother salvaged from a couple with lost their baby. There’s the hatchet responsible for a whole family’s death. There is Abigail, the troubled daughter of an itinerant preacher to be cured by Sylvie’s parents. There’s a mysterious woman who brings the orphaned girls food.

While I enjoy all the suspenses, the ending is a major disappointment. It’s one of the most abrupt, weakest, and ridiculous endings, neither clever nor plausible. Let’s just say I don’t savor or revel an ending that entirely hinges on a character that suddenly comes up toward the last tenth of the book. It wreaks apart the good foundation Searles has built up. Help For the Haunted, after all, examines a different kind of demon, more about how one’s self-righteousness backfires. It exposes human beings that are too flawed and all too real. I give this a Read only because I really enjoy reading it—until the very end ruins the book. What a waste.

368 pp. William Morrow. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss][Buy|Borrow]


2 Responses

  1. You aren’t the first person that has mentioned that ending. I had this book on my list of ones to read, but there is nothing I hate worse than investing time and being disappointed. I’m pulling it off my list.

  2. Oh wow – too bad about the ending, I was reading this and thinking it sounded really fascinating.

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