04 November 2013

Help for the Haunted

John Searles Help for the Haunted.  Swing.... and a miss.
Help for the Haunted - swing and a miss.

I really wanted to love this book. I wanted a good scare.  I don’t know why.  I felt affinity for the girls (Rose & Sylvie – incidentally, two of my favorite female names).  They seem really lonely, and their experiences: the seemingly supernatural ones, as well as the "real" (spoiler alert) murder of their parents... just tragic.

THIS is how “into” this book I was:  I was reading in bed, about 50 pages from the end.  My husband comes home from his weekly Guys Night Out.  He starts talking with me, and I actually shushed him: “I’m almost done this book, and it’s really suspenseful!” He likes a gripping yarn too, so he let me be.

Disappointment.  But in hindsight, I feel like I should have seen it coming.

Searles had a good concept here.  Professional exorcists, creepy basement filled with the haunted objects left behind by their clientele.  An angry older sister, an obedient younger sister (the narrator).  House at the end of an abandoned street.  Even a drunk uncle just to stir things up.

But... TOO MANY irrelevant details.  Turkeys.  A teen neighbor who enters the story too much, and yet not enough.  Not one but two criminal investigators (who, IMHO, are not distinct enough).  A reporter.  A school counselor.  A priest.  A couple of Child Protective Services social workers.  And on and on.

Don’t give me too many characters, especially if they aren’t all relevant.  Make them meaningful.


And above all, do NOT conclude a “whodunit” novel by introducing a BRAND NEW PSYCHOPATHIC CHARACTER (except for a brief, passing reference to a "boyfriend" from a year before on page 22).  

If a character has a badly broken leg, why does she just... vanish?    

Above all, do not allow a 14-year-old, wet, shirtless girl to run, in fear for her life, to the farm next door, in November, during butchering time, only to be greeted with this: “He had gray hair and a kind face.  He looked the way I imagined my mother’s father to have looked [WHO CARES – HER GRANDFATHER ISN’T A CHARACTER].  When he saw me, he yanked the headphones from his ears and came to me. ‘What happened to you, young lady?’” (p. 351)  No, no, no. That’s the right reaction when a kid has fallen off her bike and skinned her knee, or has dropped and broken the Girl Scout cookies she was selling, and now she’s crying.  Not when she’s come within inches of  being mortally beaten and drowned.
Haunted doll?  Run with it!  All the way, man!
(Image courtesy Troyh, Flickr Creative Commons)

None of the "haunted" people were really haunted.  None of the supposedly possessed items were possessed.  Mysteriously broken toys weren't being broken mysteriously after all.... just maliciously.  The troubled people have legitimate emotional and psychological problems, beyond that they aren't afflicted by evil spirits or anything.  Of course, "The Devil made me do it" might be a perfect excuse for gaslighting a 13-year-old out of several hundred dollars.

Maybe I just don’t like red herrings.  They feel like cheap tricks.  Don't trick me.  Entertain me.  Make me believe.  It's like a magician who, at the end of his amazing show, reveals all his secrets.  No!!!

I felt ripped off at the end of this book.  A mysterious book that ends up being totally lacking in mystery.  I wanted horror, and instead, John Searles revealed "that man behind the curtain."

What a bummer.

Note: I received a review copy of Help for the Haunted from the publisher.

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