A few things happened in quick succession before I downloaded A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. We’d been stuck in Missouri due to flooding for an extra day over the holiday, Chicago was in lockdown due to an ice storm so we rerouted our flight home through Toronto. Flights kept getting delayed. Our departure kept getting pushed back by five and ten minute increments.
I’d succumbed to buying airport wifi, so at least I was connected, and sitting in the airport trying to write was an absolute nightmare. I managed a few words, but I was just about fed up. Five minutes before our gate opened, I’d loaded Amazon on my iPad, having cleared off my stack of reading material. I grabbed it on a whim; the title looked familiar, and though I hadn’t read any reviews yet, I’d seen A Head Full of Ghosts in circulation on a few horror sites that I visit. More than usual. I figured, why not?
Exorcism. Teenager. Distraught family.
Okay, I’m down with that.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
I wasn’t prepared to hate the protagonist in the first few lines; Merry’s adult self grated on me. She was flippant, flouncy, materialistic, and being interviewed for a book — an autobiography of some sort, that documented her childhood years involving an incident with her sister. I thought to myself, settling into my seat in coach, “Oh god.” Then the book switched gears: the narrative took the form of a blog — a horror blog, commenting on a television series from fifteen years before, called “The Possession.”
Things got very meta very fast.
At this point, I had to ignore the book’s summary completely. It’s a sleeper. The summary offers a factual account of the exorcism itself as the story is told, but it doesn’t embrace the richness, the depth, the darkness surrounding these characters and how deep it goes. It doesn’t address how true-to-life the characters portrayal is, it doesn’t touch on the confusion experienced by a child-aged Merry, and it doesn’t indicate how deeply scarring this book actually was for the reader.
The narrative shifts between past, present, and horror criticism are not only seamless but completely compelling. The voice of Merry as a child, versus Merry as an adult, versus Merry as Katie the Blogger are individual entities that wrap up a story that is damn near seamless. The telling shifts between the interview, a criticism of the show seen through the eyes of someone who was present during the events at the Barrett home, and a confessional of the grown-up Merry as well: and Merry, ladies and gentlemen, Merry’s got some deep, dark stuff on deck; the sort of surprise twists that happen towards the three-quarter mark of a book and carry on straight through the ending.
Some novels peter out; they rush the ending. A Head Full of Ghosts continues to batter you right up until the end of the book and then afterwards. When I finally put the damned thing down at one in the morning, by myself in my apartment, I was looking at the shadows in the hall with just a touch more skepticism.
It’s got a bit of everything: gory to the point of visceral in places, frightening, and enduring after its done. The scenes that are purposefully meant to crawl around your head and scare you — that force you to question whether the characters are fabricating a demonic possession or actually possessed — are vibrant. They are technicolor terrifying.
I remember my mom telling me years ago the impact that Rosemary’s Baby had on her, and I think I now understand what it means for a piece of fiction to cultivate an enduring, lasting sort of fear: it’s been a few weeks and I’m still thinking about A Head Full of Ghosts.
But that’s apart from the point: this book is a meditation on evil that doesn’t offer all the answers as to the events leading up to the exorcism of Marjorie Barrett. It’s not merely about a ritual to cure a sick child, it offers the question: who is the victim and who is the perpetrator of some seriously horrific shit. Was Marjorie actually possessed by something or was she just a very sick little girl? Can we blame the parents from trying to profit from their child’s illness by setting up a television show to document her degeneration? Can we blame Merry, fifteen years into the future as she’s living off the residuals? Who’s perpetuating the evil here, after all?
Amazing. I started these book reviews thinking I wouldn’t find a five star worthy review out there, but A Head Full of Ghosts is getting those five stars. They’re well-earned.
I want to go back to the meta narrative for a second, and this might be especially salient for anyone who’s read House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and it’s a terribly minor name drop, but there is a minor character who arrives and passes over the course of the exorcism itself that sent up a flag: Dr. Navidson. No relation to House of Leaves other than his name — used as a surname in A Head Full of Ghosts — the character of the latter being a victim of the HOUSE in House of Leaves. From that point on, the story did take on the haunted quality of the postmodern opus: we look at the Barrett home in a different way, partially because of the descriptive documentation of the doors and shadows, and partially because after I saw that one mention of Navy, I couldn’t unsee it.
Clever man, this Paul Tremblay. I’ll be very excited to see what he comes up with next.
About A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul TremblayA Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Published by William Morrow on June 2nd 2015
Check it out: Goodreads
The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.
To her parents' despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie's descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts' plight. With John, Marjorie's father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.
Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie's younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface--and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.Buy on Amazon