Stories that deal with themes of exorcism are often met with a hint of skepticism, not just by staunch non-believers, but also by an audience that is wary of an over-familiar plot featuring the usual suspects—the exorcist, the possessed, and the demon—and unreal theatrics—the violent flailing, blood spewing and the devil’s grating voice channeling the blasphemous.
The beginning of John Searles’ new book, Help for the Haunted, teases the reader with the predictable unknown. There is an ongoing investigation into the murder of a couple in a church on a winter’s night. The deceased are purportedly demonologists, and they have two daughters, the younger of whom, Sylvie, is the narrator. We think we know how this will play out but Searles is only flirting with suggestion. He doesn’t quite take us into the basement—where the couple treated their patients (“the haunted”) and kept other paranormally charged objects, which also include a rag doll—well until he starts to introduce reason into his story. He deftly interweaves threads of realism with elements of mysticism, and his subtle treatment, which never strays too far from the believable, ensures the reader’s trust.
“To me, it’s great that there are these books with vampires and werewolves and dolls that climb out of graves and attack people, but I don’t want to write those kinds of books,” Searles says. “It’s more interesting to tiptoe up to the edge of what’s possible in the real world and the feeling that we all have of like, ‘Wait, what’s the truth of this situation?’”
It also helps that Searles’ fictional world of the unknown is informed by what he has known. Today, Searles is based in New York City, has already published two novels (Boy Still Missing and Strange but True) and is an editor-at-large at Cosmopolitan. His exquisitely furnished apartment in the West Village is a testament to his success, far removed from the financially bleak circumstances of his childhood. Searles grew up in Connecticut, with his parents, four siblings and his grandfather packed into a tiny two-bedroom house.
Although Help for the Haunted is set in a suburb of Baltimore, Searles drew a lot of inspiration from the neighborhood which molded his formative years, from the abandoned, concrete foundations of unfinished houses and the church (which was a makeshift gym) to a couple who were known demonologists. Searles lived in the vicinity of the Warren residence—the home of the demonologists at the heart of the recent film The Conjuring. “What’s funny is that as a kid I would see them in church and I would be terrified,” Searles explains. “I would also see [Lorraine Warren] at the grocery store; they were sort of infamous,” he says. A few years ago, when Searles was working on a book about two sisters whose parents had been murdered, he was invited back to the town library as a special guest. The event honored him with a few other writers, one of whom was Lorraine. That’s when he started toying with the idea of giving Sylvie’s parents a similar profession as the Warrens’, but that was only a starting point: He let his imagination sketch the characters of the demonologists in Help for the Haunted.
While the element of suspense serves an engaging plot, Sylvie’s journey—seeking out the truth about her parents while trying to be a normal teenager—charges the emotional drama, making the book as much of a coming-of-age story as it is a thriller. This is the first time Searles has written a book from a female perspective, but that too was an accessible space for him. “Growing up, my dad and brother were always off, so it was really just my mom and my two sisters and me,” he says. “I was also bullied by boys, so my friends were mostly girls or the librarians. And then, as an adult I went on to be an editor of one of the largest women’s magazines of the world, so in a weird way writing a book from a female perspective was almost easier.”
When he was a child, Searles read a lot of Stephen King (“creepiness”), Sidney Sheldon (“plodding”) and John Irving (“quirkiness”) while accompanying his dad, who is a trucker, on long routes. But he reread Jane Eyre, which is Slyvie’s favorite book. “That’s a classic novel of a person being orphaned, a person having to make their way in the world at a very young age, and also being a female, so I wanted to use it because it’s such an archetype,” Searles says.
As Help for the Haunted unravels, the mystery is gradually revealed with convincing facts but Searles leaves slender cracks in the reasoning toward the end. “I think it’s the case with everyone that even if you really don’t believe hard-core, there is a little part of you that wants to or still does,” he says.
Neha Sharma is a writer based in New York. Her work has also appeared in the New York Observer, New York Magazine and Rolling Stone (India).