John Searles’s Help for the Haunted is an unforgettable story of a most unusual family, their deep secrets, their harrowing tragedy, and ultimately, a daughter’s discovery of a dark and unexpected mystery.
Sylvie Mason’s parents have an unusual occupation—helping “haunted souls” find peace. After receiving a strange phone call one winter’s night, they leave the house and are later murdered in an old church in a horrifying act of violence.
A year later, Sylvie is living in the care of her older sister, who may be to blame for what happened to their parents. Now, the inquisitive teenager pursues the mystery, moving closer to the knowledge of what occurred that night—and to the truth about her family’s past and the secrets that have haunted them for years.
Capturing the vivid eeriness of Stephen King’s works with the compelling quirkiness of John Irving’s beloved novels, Help for the Haunted is that rare story that brings to life a richly imagined and wholly original world.
Gillian Flynn is the author of Sharp Objects, Dark Places and the #1 New York Times best-selling novel Gone Girl. She lives in Chicago with her husband, Brett Nolan, and a rather giant cat named Roy.
Gillian Flynn: Writers imbue their characters with a little bit of themselves. Obviously, Sylvie Mason is very different from you. How did you find a window into Sylvie?
John Searles: I joke that, deep down, I’m really a teenage girl. Growing up, my dad worked as a cross-country truck-driver and my brother was usually off with his friends, so my mom, my sisters and I spent were always together. As an adult, I become an editor at a women’s magazine. So in a weird way, it was almost easier for me to write from a female perspective.
GF: You’ve talked before about how your sister’s death affected your writing. How so in this book?
JS: After my sister, Shannon, died, my parents divorced and I left for New York to try and become a writer. Our youngest sister, Keri, was left behind. Keri was around the age of Sylvie, and I realized while writing the book that I was channeling her emotions from that time. She was so young to be faced with tragedy, but like Sylvie, had a resilient spirit.
GF: Help for the Haunted has some seriously scary moments and delves into the subculture of haunted souls and paranormalists. What inspired you?
JS: As a kid, I was obsessed with scary things. I made haunted houses in our garage, and when I got my license, I used to load my friends into my station wagon and drive us down a dirt road at night, where I’d try to scare the hell out of them.
Also, I grew up in the same town as the couple who inspired “The Conjuring.” Seeing them in church used to frighten me! Years later, I saw the woman at library event, and I wondered what it would be like if Sylvie’s parents dealt with the paranormal too.
GF: Do you believe in the supernatural?
JS:In Help For the Haunted, Sylvie says, “I do and I don’t believe.” Her mix of feelings is like my own. Logically, I know better, but then life serves up something unexplainable and I can’t help but believe again.
GF: How do you think you’ve grown as a writer over the course of your career?
JS:I’ve always tried to take risks with my writing, but in Help for the Haunted, I took more: writing from a girl’s perspective, combining a murder mystery with a coming of age tale, playing with time and the supernatural. I used to ask my editor, “Is this story too weird?” Thankfully, she always told me to keep going.
GF: Did you begin Help for the Haunted knowing what was going to happen?
JS: All I had was the voice of a girl left in the care of her tough older sister. The rest came in pieces. The old Tudor where the family lives was inspired by an old Tudor where I stayed at Yaddo. The sisters’ job doing surveys was one I had in high school. The doll came when I discovered Raggedy Ann dolls in my mother’s attic. I forgot she once made them until they were staring me in the face—and scaring me!— once more.
GF: Lots of writers have quirky writing habits. What are yours?
JS: Lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling. Push-ups. Runs. Baths. When I go into a writing jag, I don’t change my clothes, shower or shave. While revising Help for the Haunted, I took a break and stumbled into a restaurant. All of New York City and who sits down next to me, but Jay McInerney. He looked at me with my greasy bedhead and rumpled clothes, and I swear he was about to say, “The soup kitchen is down the street.”