Review: A Head Full of Ghosts
By Paul Tremblay
“Oh, you like horror? I don’t bother with that stuff because the real world is scary enough for me, thank you very much.”
It’s a response that many fans of all things frightful have received at some point in their lives, and it never gets any less annoying to hear. It does have a ring of truth to it, of course; the world is a terrifying place to live in. But what people who look down their noses at the horror genre and its fans fail to see is that we’re fully aware of that reality, and it’s why we love what we love.
Find yourself being stalked by a vampire? Just wait for the sun to come up and turn it to a neat little pile of ash. Zombies amassing on your front lawn? Aim for the head, of course. Got a poltergeist infestation? Track down Zelda Rubinstein, maybe she can help you out.
The point is, in many of the stories we devour there’s a way to battle the evil that’s beating down the door, but what the hell are we supposed to do about the real world problems we are bombarded with on a day-to-day basis? Intolerance and hatred; feelings of isolation and disconnectedness; dread-inducing climates of both the environmental and economic variety. At least a slasher villain has rules to follow; this shit just makes you feel helpless.
A Head Full of Ghosts, by acclaimed crime author Paul Tremblay, is a novel that addresses in a visceral and oftentimes uncomfortably close-to-home manner the issues that fuel our anxieties today, while framing the narrative in a sub-genre of horror that has come to represent many of those fears: the demonic possession story.
In it we follow Merry Barrett, a young woman recounting to a journalist the traumatic events that she and her family endured while filming a hit reality television show called “The Possession.” The show focused on Merry’s mentally ill sister, Marjorie, who, according to her religious father and a local Catholic priest, is believed to be possessed by a demon. As Merry recounts the weeks leading up to her sister’s exorcism and the tragic days that would follow, we are presented both with a portrait of a family torn apart from the inside and with the question of whether or not we can ever truly put our faith in our own perceptions reality.
The exorcism story is one that’s been beaten into the ground pretty thoroughly over the past decade and a half, with so many movies released ranging from the mildly-watchable to the face-palmingly clichéd. Miraculously, A Head Full of Ghosts manages to avoid lesser works’ pitfalls and delivers an original tale that is equal parts terrifying and thought provoking.
At its core, the book is a deconstruction of the sub-genre. On a technical level, this is done by posts from a fictitious blog called “The Last Final Girl,” which are peppered throughout the book and serve as an outsider’s analysis of the television show “The Possession” (later on in the book they take a bigger role in the story). In these blog posts, Tremblay expertly dissects the classic “possessed girl” story through the lens of the reality TV cameras that film Marjorie and her family, and by doing so, strips away from the narrative the tropes that we are so used to seeing in it. Then, when it switches back to Merry’s narration (which is filtered through the view of her own sometimes unreliable memories) we are left with a story that feels uniquely terrifying simply for the fact that you are seeing it happen from so many different angles but are unsure which one to trust.
The sub-genre is broken down further, with Tremblay examining hidden themes found in possession stories and displaying them in a critical light. These are the moments where the book is at its most effective in terms of worming its way into your head, because it’s the types of real life horrors that are inescapable. We see the poisonous potential of religion, as seen in the father’s deepening reliance on it to explain what is happening to his daughter, despite the scientific evidence being presented to him. We witness the damaging effects of the patriarchy as Merry’s mother is stripped by her husband and the church leaders of any say in regards to the treatment of her own daughter and reduced to a voiceless shell of her former self.
Overall, A Head Full of Ghosts’ biggest strength is the way it sends you down so many different avenues of possibility until you’re left unsure about any explanation that is given to you. The characters the story presents are all unreliable in some way or another, making their motives or interpretation of events suspect, which in turn makes them feel all the more human and three dimensional. And the beauty of it is that all of these unanswered questions and diversions will leave you unguarded for one of the most truly unsettling endings this reviewer has read in a very long time.
A Head Full of Ghosts is an inventive, engaging, and (most importantly) terrifying take on the classic exorcism story, and is one of those rare horror novels where the real life scares presented are far more frightening then any of the potentially supernatural ones.