To John Searles, the creepiest thing in the world isn’t a vindictive doll or a basement light that flashes on when nobody’s home or even demonic possession — although the possibility of such hauntings exist in his riveting new novel Help for the Haunted.
No. What’s scary is the dark matter that springs from our hyperactive imaginations.
“A lot of people are afraid of dolls — everybody remembers Chucky,” says the author, who appears in conversation with novelist Chris Bohjalian Friday at Books & Books in Coral Gables. “But I didn’t want my book to be: The doll comes to life and starts attacking people. … It’s more scary to have the suggestion of what could be because your mind fills it in. Wondering what the doll is capable of — that’s scarier and creepier than the clichéd version of the doll chasing people with a knife.”
And so we are left to wonder about Penny, the Raggedy Ann in Help for the Haunted (Morrow, $26.99), who may harbor a restless spirit. But the novel, Searles’ third, turns out to be less horror show and more a poignant story of a family, of parents navigating an odd and dangerous career, of daughters shaken by doubt and loss and grief — and the gulf that widens between them all.
Help for the Haunted is also a compelling mystery: The Masons “help” troubled souls and try to keep daughters Rose and Sylvie at arms’ length from their secretive work, despite mysterious late night phone calls and the occasional stranger sleeping in the basement. But one winter night at a quiet church, something bad happens, and Sylvie, a bright eighth grader, must try to figure out what transpired.
All aspects of the story appeal to Bohjalian, author of The Light in the Ruins and The Sandcastle Girls.
“I always enjoy coming-of-age stories, and this is a coming-of-age story with this absolutely delectable, terrifying twist,” he says. “That doll creeped me out in the best possible way. Any book that has a doll in a cage is going to be great. As a reader you’re pulling desperately for Sylvie. That’s a great place to be in. You want her to solve this mystery and and stay safe. . . . John’s really good at chronicling the darkness in adolescence. I think back on his books, and in some ways I think that is his literary sweet spot.”
Writing from the point of view of a young girl can prove tricky, but Searles, author of Boy Still Missing and Strange But True and the Editor at Large for Cosmo magazine, jokes that the task came easily.
“I always joke deep down I’m really a teenage girl on the inside,” says the author, who grew up in Connecticut and has made regular appearances on NBC’s Today Show and CBS’ The Early Show to recommend books. “My dad was a cross-country truck driver. My brother was always off with his muscle cars or playing sports. So it was me and my mom and two sisters. I was around them all the time. In school, being gay, I wasn’t out of the closet, but I was just different from other boys and not hanging around with them. A lot of my friends were female. I’ve edited a woman’s magazine for 15 plus years, so I would say I have a good sense of women.”