Help for the Haunted, by John Searles

Help for the Haunted

Sylvie Mason’s parents were murdered in February, 1989, and she’s been lying ever since. Sylvie told the police that she saw a man who had been harassing the possession/haunting experts since the previous fall at the church where they died. But when a witness places that man far from the scene of the crime, Sylvie’s lies—told to preserve family secrets and placate her volatile older sister—start to break down. John Searles’ Help for the Haunted shows us how Sylvie finally finds the truth.

Sylvester and Rose Mason are notorious. Both have been seeing ghosts since they were teenagers. Sylvester first saw them in his family’s movie theater. Rose would get “feelings” about people and things. Together, they travel the country lecturing on the supernatural and helping people who ask. After a disturbing incident with a nanny, the Masons start to take their daughters on the road with them. Rose is clearly troubled. She chafes against her father’s restrictions and her parents’ religion. For a time, she finds and repeats bizarre and controversial passages from the Bible until father explosively looses his temper. Sylvie is caught in the middle of it all, trying to live up to her parents’ expectations of their “good girl.”

Help for the Haunted is told in a roundabout fashion as Sylvie asks questions and remembers what happened in the year leading up to the murders. Rose’s relationship with her parents deteriorates, until they send her away to a place called Saint Julia’s. Then they take in Abigail, the daughter of a roving minister who believes his daughter is possessed. At this point, Sylvie finally starts to question her parent’s work, especially after Abigail disappears and the minister starts following and calling the Masons to find out what happened. As Sylvie pursues her own investigation, she is questioned by the police and the family lawyer in preparation for the trial against her parents’ accused murderer. The official story collapses when Sylvie starts to look more closely at her abrasive, damaged sister. Everything comes back to Rose, in the end.

At more than 600 pages, there’s a lot of story in Help for the Haunted, but it didn’t feel overlong. The Masons are a complex family and it takes a lot of effort for Sylvie to question what she’s been told all her life and what her sister and others tell her after the murders. Though the Masons specialized in helping others, it becomes clear that the family could do with some rescuing of their own. They are far from saints, though Sylvester would like everyone to think so. Everything Sylvie believes at the beginning of the book is turned upside down and inside out by the end.

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