Haunted Families: Help for the Haunted by John Searles/Descent by Tim Johnston

Your family knows you the best. Your family is the one who knows things about you even you don’t know (like if you have a bad habit of sneezing into books). They will remember that one time you went on a rant about water chestnuts in the pot pie or when you threw a head of lettuce at your mouthy teenage daughter.

They will remember it forever. Families are like elephants.

I read two books back to back that are ostensibly about one thing or another, but ultimately deal with families: the consequences of having one, and the consequences of losing it.

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In Descent by Tim Johnston, a teenage brother and sister go for a morning jaunt into the Rockies, and only the brother returns. What ensues is an exploration of the repercussions on a family when one part of it, the strongest part, the unifying part, disappears. As the months and years drag on with no trace of the missing girl being found, the uncertainty manifests itself in painful ways on each family member. The tension of not knowing is worse than finding her body somewhere in that vast wilderness.

The narrative is more than simply a kidnapping story. It’s a story of a family missing a piece of their puzzle. Johnston builds the tension through the grand setting of the Rockies and a heart-pounding finale, but even those dramatic moments seem secondary to the smaller moments of a mother, father, and brother trying to piece themselves together, trying to picture themselves and build their life without their daughter/sister in it. The huge question mark of her life makes it impossible for them to move forward; they grieve without ever giving up hope.

The narrative remains disjointed at times, however, as it seems the author is writing two separate novels. There’s a wrenching, torture-porn moment near the end that feels a bit out of place in one world of the novel, the world where the devastated family attempts to find direction, but utterly in keeping with the brutal winter wilds of the Rockies.

In Help for the Haunted, two sisters cope with a different sort of loss. Their parents have been murdered and now the vastly different girls must cope with the odd legacy left behind. See, their parents weren’t just any parents, but a pair of moderately famous demonologists who cart their girls around to their speaking engagements and keep haunted curios in the basement (check the creepy doll…sounds familiar *cough* Annabelle *cough*).

The couple bears more than a passing resemblance to a pair of real life “demonologists” which makes for a lonely, odd life for their daughters. The elder lashes out while the youngest bears the heavier burden of always doing what is expected. They live on the isolated Butter Lane, surrounded by the weed-wracked foundations of houses that never became homes.

The “haunting” in the title is up for grabs; not necessarily supernatural, but threading through the lives and minds of the teenage girls. Thoughtful characterization and a slow-burn plot makes for propulsive reading as the younger daughter attempts to piece together the puzzle of her parents’ murder. The ending, however, makes a left turn into WTF Town that makes me wish it really had been demons all along.

We are haunted by the lives and loss of those we love (everyone recognizes that moment when they hear their mother/father’s voice coming out of their mouth for the first time). Both novels explore the startling depths of the threads of childhood and family that find expressions in that entity known as the self. I am me, I think. I am an individual. But I am pieces of many other people, too. We are all, for better and for worse, haunted.

 

 

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