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.”
Toward the end of writing the novel, he realized why Sylvie’s voice sounded familiar. One of his sisters, Shannon, died a year before he graduated from Southern Connecticut State University.
“My younger sister was Sylvie’s age when she passed away,” he says. “I realized I was channeling her voice and emotions of that time. She’s not Sylvie, but there’s some kind of essence there of my youngest sister. She showed a remarkable resilient spirit for someone so young.”
A variety of different influences inspired Help for the Haunted, Searles says. His mother used to make Raggedy Anns and Andys from a mail-order kit (“They used to sit on the rocking chair in our living room and creeped me out”). A trip to the library reminded him that he’d grown up in the same town in which Ed and Lorraine Warren lived (you know them as the paranormal investigators from The Conjuring and The Amityville Horror). The memory lingered, though Searles is quick to point out the Masons are nothing like the Warrens.
But the real inspiration was a Tudor house Searles lived in at Yaddo, the artists’ community in Saratoga Springs. Swamped with work for Cosmo, he’d had no time to write and begged for a sabbatical, which the magazine granted. “I didn’t know if I could write anymore,” he admits. But when he stepped into the impressive gothic house, it fired his imagination and became in his mind (and book) the Masons’ home.
So in other words, Help for the Haunted is a testament to the power of perseverance.
“This book really killed me,” Searles says of the novel, which he estimates took four or five years to write (he had written about 400 pages of a different novel and reluctantly abandoned it when his agent offered up a little tough love about its worth). “I had so much self doubt. That’s what slowed me down the most. I was thinking, ‘Are people gonna make fun of me?’ I guess without knowing it, I was doing something I hadn’t done before. . . . the second book [ Strange But True, which is being adapted for the screen] was a stroke of luck — I had an idea in the subway. I wish that would happen all the time. This was so complex for me . . . . There was just so many layers to it, it hurt my head.”
Searles gets to rest his head, sort of, for the next few months. He’ll be touring this fall. He plans to continue his TV appearances (“I love doing it. At first I was so bad, I can’t believe they put me back on TV . . . . but I got comfortable”). And he still loves working at Cosmo, where he gets to write those hilarious headlines (his favorite, on a story about a couple having sex in the bedroom, bathroom and the stairway, was “Bed, Bath and Beyond Her Wildest Dreams”). Come spring, he says, he’ll “hunker down” and get back to writing a new book.
“I missed it so much,” he says. “I love being able to be a writer. That’s what I moved to New York to be.”