A dash of Irving, a pinch of Sheldon, a half-teaspoon of Stephen King

"Help for the Haunted," the acclaimed new novel by John Searles, is a potpourri of ingredients as unlikely and surprising as the author's own life story


MANCHESTER, N.H., Sept. 26, 2013 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- The recipe for John Searles's new novel, "Help for the Haunted," involves some flavorings not usually mixed together. "If I were to describe it," laughed Searles, "I'd say it's a mixture of Stephen King's eeriness, John Irving's quirkiness, and Sidney Sheldon's plot twists."
If you think about it, though, the same recipe works pretty well for the author's bio. We'll start with the quirkiness of an adolescence spent (during the summers) riding the interstates with a father who was a truck driver; and a love of reading that began with mass-market paperbacks pulled off the racks at truck stops: horror, crime, fantasy, erotica, etc. Plenty of Stephen King and Sidney Sheldon. Not so much John Irving. But certainly all the quirkiness you might expect from that sort of entrée into the art of fiction.
The eeriness has to do, really, with a real and substantial sort of horror: the tragic death of a beloved sister, just before her high school graduation. Searles shies away from spelling out the circumstances of the event. He said in an interview with Publisher's Weekly only that it was "horrific."
But it was also something that shook him out of an aimless drift through factory work and business studies in college. "My sister made me realize that life is short," he told PW, "and I thought, you know, this is what I always wanted to do."
What he always wanted to do was write, and now for the Sidney Sheldon plot twists. Among his father's regular cargoes were sets for Broadway shows. One day in 1993, however, that truck delivered to Manhattan not a Broadway set, but rather the driver's hopeful son, along with all John's belongings in garbage bags.
Flash forward ten years and trust us on the plot twists. Searles has an MFA in writing from New York University, is an editor-at-large for "Cosmopolitan," and is an affiliate member of the faculty of Southern New Hampshire University's low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program.

He is also a frequent guest (discussing books) on CNN, NBC's "Today," and CBS's "The Early Show, Live!" His essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, and he is the author of three novels. On the 2001 publication of his first novel, "Boy Still Missing," TIME magazine named Searles a "Person to Watch."
His second book, "Strange But True," was singled out as the best novel of 2004 by Salon.com. But it might be this third, just published by William Morrow/Harper Collins, that really answers to the potential TIME saw in this idiosyncratic sort of storyteller.

"Fear is the strongest human emotion," said Searles, "and I wanted to write the ultimate ghost story. At the same time I wanted it grounded in reality, to have it stay within the bounds of what we know—or think—to be possible."

The parents of Sylvie Mason, the14-year-old protagonist of "Help for the Haunted," live on the edge of that boundary as demonologists. One night Sylvie goes with them to a rendezvous in a church with Rose, Sylvie's runaway older sister. But her parents are murdered in that church while Sylvie is asleep in the car, and eventually the girl finds herself in the care of the bullying, erratic Rose. Meanwhile it's left to Sylvie to unravel the mystery of what really happened that night, and all that lies behind it.

Publisher's Weekly, in a starred review, said readers would want to whistle past the graveyard by the time they finished. Said PW, Sylvie's "current existence, her parents' 'gifts' and vagabond lifestyle, and strange goings-on in the Masons' basement unfold in nonlinear fashion, keeping the reader on edge while Sylvie bravely uncovers her family's many secrets."

Booklist has also awarded a starred review ("superlative storytelling"), and Kirkus Reviews said, "Searles has a knack for building tension; the 'haunted' of the title refers as much to Sylvie and her circumstances as to things otherworldly. A somber, well-paced journey, wrapped in mystery, that will keep readers guessing until the revealing conclusion."

The author himself, meanwhile, might be described as nonlinear, really very fast-paced, and not at all somber. "I'm always hearing, 'You're so light and funny, and your books are so dark and twisted,'" he said. "There's a dichotomy. I like books that are dark and creepy. I don't control it—it's just what I gravitate toward."

Diane Les Becquets, the novelist who is also the director of the MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program at Southern New Hampshire University, is among those who relish that dichotomy.

"No matter how dark your subject matter, there is great joy in the craft itself," she said. "John just personifies that joy when he's among our students. That inspires, and so do the books—dark and twisted, sure, but beautifully wrought."

Speaking of beautifully wrought, consider that Searles' own story began in a Connecticut factory town, with a family in which no one had gone to college, and in the passenger seat of a semi. Like "Help for the Haunted," this is a story pointed toward a most unexpected—and much brighter—conclusion.