"St. Hilaire was all about guiding the living through contact with the dead," explains 17-year-old Russ Griffin in Helene Dunbar's new young-adult novel, "Prelude for Lost Souls." "We weren't witches. St. Hilaire High wasn't Hogwarts. We simply relayed the words of the dead to those who needed to hear them." Russ is one of three troubled teens whose lives intersect in the mysterious town of St. Hilaire, New York, at the end of the summer tourist season.
In St. Hilaire, the tourists consist of "the inquisitive and the desperate, those in mourning and those overcome by guilt." Many of the residents are mediums for hire, willing to put their clients in touch with those who have died and help them find the answers for which they search, as long as the price is right. Russ shows real paranormal promise and aspires to membership in The Guild, the town's heavy-handed governing body. Abandoned in St. Hilaire by his mother when his talent first began to show, Russ mines his late grandmother's notebooks for recipes and instructions that will make him stronger and secure his future, little counting the cost to his own health in the process.
By contrast, his best friend, Dec Hampton, is fed up with St. Hilaire and ready to leave. Two years earlier, his parents were killed in a car accident that only he survived. Despite The Guild's strong wish that he remain, Dec has no interest in living the rest of his life in a town that, in his opinion, preys on "grief and guilt and greed." Dec's supernatural skills are minimal, but that doesn't prevent him from being haunted by a spirit named Tristan, a young British man who smells of lemons and smokes endless Indian cigarettes while spouting cryptic messages and warnings. Dec wants nothing to do with Tristan, and to calm his nerves, he listens to recordings by his favorite musician, the teenage Russian concert pianist Anastasia "Annie" Krylova.
Helene Dunbar will discuss “Prelude for Lost Souls” at YA-hoo Fest, an online celebration of young-adult literature in Chattanooga on Sept. 14-17.
When Annie shows up at Dec's door one day, he is dumbfounded and too embarrassed to admit that he is her biggest fan. Running away from the pressures of a brutal schedule and the death of her beloved mentor, Dmitry Petrov, Annie stumbles into St. Hilaire quite unexpectedly when her train breaks down nearby. Obsessed with an unfinished musical composition of unknown authorship called simply "The Prelude," Annie is determined to fulfill Dmitry's last wish: find the missing ending of the piece and perform it in a prestigious music contest. When Dec's family gives her shelter, she begins to play their piano (which seems to have a mind of its own), with surprising results for everyone.
Dunbar, a Nashvillian, has imagined an offbeat little village peopled by both the living and the dead and exuding lots of eerie atmosphere — from dog possession, fairy gardens, and tarot card readings to phone calls from the dead, seances and a much sought-after Mustang whose iridescent surface seems to conform to your hand when touched, "like a cat who appreciated being stroked."
Fans of ghost stories and mysteries alike will enjoy following the unlikely threads Dunbar weaves into spooky surprises in this dark novel, upending many traditional tropes along the way. In St. Hilaire, it's the living you have to watch out for, not the abundant dead. As Dec says, "Spirits were far more frightened of the living than the living were of them."
For more local book coverage, visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.