“In St. Hilaire, New York, everyone talked to the dead,” explains teenage medium Russ Griffin. “If you were lucky or talented, or both, the dead might listen. Sometimes they talked back. Sometimes they made sense. Sometimes they were just a pain in the ass.” With The Promise of Lost Things, Nashville writer Helene Dunbar adds another page-turning chapter to the story of this unusual town and its spooky residents — both living and dead — begun in her 2020 novel, Prelude for Lost Souls.
Founded in 1870 as a sanctuary for spiritualists, St. Hilaire has one principal industry: contacting those who have died and relaying their messages to friends and family members — for a price. The town is run by the Guild, which sets the “Rules of Conduct for Mediums” and can be merciless in its enforcement of them. A gifted high school senior, Russ is the leader of the Youth Corps, which he once hoped would lead him to a permanent position within the Guild when he graduated. But ever since he got a glimpse of the organization’s internal corruption, he’s had a different end in mind. And yet he loves the town: “St. Hilaire was shadows on the wall and voices in your ear. It was incense and history and belief in the unbelievable. In St. Hilaire there were no coincidences, no impossibilities. To live there was to talk to the dead more than the living.”
Together with his friend, and sometime-lover, Ian Mackenzie, Russ is determined to take down the Guild and bring about new leadership that will shine a more tolerant light on the residents of St. Hilaire. Ian is the most talented, difficult, and unpredictable young medium in town. There’s only one problem: Ian is dead. Russ isn’t exactly sure what happened, but then he never could be sure of Ian even when he was alive. “Every time he disappeared,” admits Russ, “I worried that he wasn’t coming back. Then I worried he was coming back. It was a never-ending cycle.”
Ian is in greater demand than ever. When a nationally syndicated TV program called “Ghost Killers” wants permission to film inside St. Hilaire, with the intention of debunking its supernatural claims, the Guild can’t risk a failure. They must persuade Ian to show up on cue and put on an impressive display, thereby ensuring their bottom line for years to come. Meanwhile, Willow Rogers, the daughter of the Guild president, has her own ruthless plan for St. Hilaire. She “vanquished” her first ghost at age 12 and was delighted to find that her talent grew as a result. Willow thinks the time has come for people like her to control the town, “not the commons who paid … fifteen dollars to visit us like animals in a zoo.” She plans to overthrow the Guild by forcing spirits to move on and, in the process, siphoning off each one’s power for herself. And her next target is the most powerful spirit she knows: Ian Mackenzie.
Into this complicated plot comes Asher Mullen, whose parents are the stars of “Ghost Killers.” Ever since Asher’s older sister was killed in an accident, his parents are more determined than ever to expose those who would prey upon the grief of others for personal gain. They instruct Asher to befriend someone from St. Hilaire in order to provide them with inside information. When Asher lists his car for sale and Russ shows up to buy it, their meeting – and immediate attraction — changes everything. It’s up to Russ now to navigate his growing relationship with Asher, his loyalty to Ian, and his complicated feelings about the Guild, the town, and his own future with both. “I was fine hanging with the dead,” he realizes. “It was the living I was inherently suspicious of and uncomfortable with.”
It’s a fascinating world that Dunbar has created in St. Hilaire. Russ, Willow, and Asher take turns as narrator, and short chapters add to the sense of urgency and suspense. It’s all great fun and there’s not a ghost of a chance that readers will be able to resist this dark tale of spirits, spies, and sabotage.
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.