Fourteen-year-old Renni Benson and her bestie Pammy Garman have "willingly" joined a panhandling Philadelphia cult led by a Vietnamese refugee named Kheim, a Buddhist monk. Lots of other young teens have done the same, and their heartbroken parents see them on the well-evoked dirty Philly streets begging for coins in worn-out clothes. Several of these parents form a committee to get their kids back after learning what a danger Kheim is, but apparently back in the day cops weren't too weirded out by such occurrences. Indeed, Pammy's mother and father don't seem too concerned, even relieved, since now they can indulge in more gin on the rocks and spousal abuse, respectively. Even Eddie Benson, the hero and Renni's father, doesn't seem nearly as worried at first as you can imagine a parent would be today. It's a little jarring to a modern reader, even one without children.
I think this was common coin in the early to mid 1970s: after the murderous Manson girls and groupies you had the Moonies and the Hare Krishnas, and at least in big cities, runaway kids joining these cults, too young and naive and perhaps even strung-out to realize they were being used and exploited by con men operating under the guise of New Age-y enlightenment. That must explain the parents' early reactions to their missing kids. Anyway, when Benson learns that Kheim is a master of astral projection, he visits a yogi named Nullatumbi, who puts Benson to some serious training of his sloppy Western mind, introducing him to psychokinesis and out-of-body experiences and all that kinda stuff so Benson can do astral battle with Kheim. Not too '70s now indeed.
Hallahan, who wrote one helluva good chilly occult suspense novel called The Search for Joseph Tully, is a careful and serious writer, making the absurd plausible and wringing satisfying suspense out of it. When Benson finally masters astral projection, we feel the spooky endless emptiness of outer space itself:
...he saw the multitude of stars that surrounded him. He seemed to be crossing an entire galaxy. Now the pain came. It focused at one point - a paralyzing, unforgiving point of pain. He'd stopped in the midst of the stars, a throbbing point of pain in the universe attached to a thin silver cord that meandered away in the dark... If the cord had broken, he was dead, never to reenter his body. And his presence would wander in space forever.1980 Sphere UK paperback
That is what Benson is risking when he goes to rescue his daughter. Heavy. There's also an excellent bit of literal cat-and-mouse (well, rat) violence, a sequence that I suppose made sense in those Watership Down days. But I feel like Keeper could have been a longer novel, as it's not even 200 pages in this Avon paperback. I could've used more background on the cult, on Kheim, on what the children truly experienced as they were "kept." It feels a bit thin and a tad underdone in spots; even Benson seems somewhat of a cipher. I think Keeper of the Children will provide enjoyment for folks who like this kind '70s occult fiction, but for me, I much preferred The Search for Joseph Tully.