When I realized who the ghost was in the first story of Tim Prasil’s new collection Help for the Haunted, I knew I was in for a good time.
The rest of the volume didn’t disappoint. Help for the Haunted is a fun collection of linked short stories, based around a creative theory as to why ghosts are able to return to the plane of the living, and a cute way of detecting these crossovers. Within that framework fall all manner of ghosts and manifestations; every story offers a different kind.
The tales are tightly enough coupled and have enough progression that I’m tempted to categorize the book as a “short story cycle” style novel. The narrator is Tim’s great-grandaunt Lida Prasilova, writing about her adventures with early twentieth century muckraker journalist and occult detective Vera Van Slyke. I love the rapport between Vera and Lida. They’re like a beer-drinking, ghost-hunting Holmes and Watson, if Holmes and Watson were American women.
Like Holmes, Vera’s mind is dedicated wholly to the information she needs for her job. She’s not much for literature (classical or popular), and she’s hilariously bad with names. She doesn’t have much to do with the opposite sex, mostly I think because they can’t handle her. Lida was a fraudulent medium, whom Vera unmasked. She agrees to help Vera with her exposé of the Spiritualism industry, Spirits Shouldn’t Sneeze (what a great title), and eventually becomes Vera’s assistant — and dearest friend.
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf articulated the literary equivalent of the Bechdel test:
All these relationships between women, I thought…are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends…. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that….
… Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer!
Ms. Woolf would be pleased to know that Help for the Haunted passes the test. Of course, Vera and Lida do live in a male-dominated society, and… well, there are other issues, too. The stories don’t ignore the problems of being a self-sufficient woman at the turn of the twentieth century, but it’s nice to see Vera and Lida overcome those problems and thrive, as much as that’s possible.
Tim has peppered the narrative with authentic historical details about people and places in Chicago, and other cities, too (I lived in Pittsburgh for several years when I was in grad school, and I never knew the story of Fort Pitt and the smallpox blankets). Harry Houdini makes a guest appearance as one of Vera’s clients. Vera’s trusty reference tome, Catherine Crowe’s The Night-Side of Nature; Or Ghosts and Ghost-Seers, is a real book. I do have one minor nit to pick in this regard: the Golden Gate Bridge wasn’t built until 1933, so a certain otherwise plausible Barbary Coast politician could hardly stand in its shadow sometime around 1870. But it wasn’t a key point of the story, anyway.
There are also some delightful details hidden throughout for fans of the occult detective genre. Vera’s mentor is one Harry Escott, a character featured in two stories by Fitz-James O’Brien, one of which, “A Pot of Tulips,” was for a time considered the earliest tale in the occult detective genre (Tim’s chronology gives that honor to E.T.A Hoffman’s “Das öde Haus” — at least for the time being). I also caught a name-check to a character in the 1970s occult detective TV series Kolchak, which I believe is Tim’s favorite show. So there may be other Kolchak references, too, that I missed.
Because there’s a progression from one story to the next, I recommend reading the stories in order (in other words, buy the book!) However, you can also get a complimentary story once a month at the Vera Van Slyke ~ Ghostly Mysteries website. Either way, if you like occult detective stories, definitely check these out.