"A Head Full of Ghosts" Book Review
Written by Gabino Iglesias
Published by William Morrow
Written by Paul Tremblay
2015, 304 pages, Fiction
Released on June 2nd, 2015
Yes, every book about a possession I read has to be on the same level as William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist in order to merit a review. However, I take things a step further: said novel must also be on par with Mario Mendoza’s Satanas, which might be far less known than Blatty’s novel but won Seix Barral's distinguished Biblioteca Breve and is one of my personal favorites. Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts belongs alongside these two narratives, and it deserves to be recognized as smarter than both of them. Considering what that says about the novel, I should stop the review here so you could go grab a copy right now, but I’ll carry on for the sake of professionalism.
When Merry was eight years old, her fourteen-year-old sister Marjorie began a fast-paced descent into madness that shattered her life in more than one way. Up to that point, the Barretts had been a normal suburban New England family that struggled with money issues, and those problems were simultaneously exacerbated and pushed out of center stage due to Marjorie’s behavior. All early signs pointed to a psychological affliction like acute schizophrenia, but no doctor could stop the bouts of violence, which soon began to include words and actions that seemed to signal a very different, and far scarier, kind of ailment. With science failing them, the father turned to a Catholic priest for help. The clergyman suggests an exorcism while the Barretts find a way to turn their dire situation into a profit thanks to reality television. As if the chaos, confusion, fighting, cameras, and screaming weren’t enough, Merry is also forced to deal with her sister, whose actions and words shift between being on the same wavelength and being diametrically opposed.
Tremblay uses a variety of narrative tools to construct this narrative, and he’s great at all of them. For example, the novel begins with a grown Merry telling her story to a bestselling author fifteen years after tragedy befell her family. Once the reader is comfortable and can start to guess how the narrating will play out, the author switches to a blog. Surprisingly humorous and very intelligent, the blog offers an outstanding deconstruction of demonic possession in popular culture. Besides being very informative and a lot of fun to read, this section places Tremblay in a special spot: the man is treading dangerous territory by writing a novel about a possessed young lady, but he knows the space as well as any horror scholar and is willing to use that knowledge to change the game. While that’s impressive, the fact that he actually manages to write something truly unique is an accomplishment so massive that it almost trumps the smart deconstruction and the time and care that went into getting it all down within the framework of the narrative.
While the above paragraph might make A Head Full of Ghosts sound like an academic tome, Tremblay never allows the book to become anything but a horror story, and he does spooky very well:
“That night, standing in Marjorie’s doorway, when I knew nothing of night terrors and old plaster, I saw Marjorie clinging to the wall like a spider. Her circular poster collage, her collection of glossy body parts, was her web, and she hovered over its center. Her arms and legs were spread-eagled, with her hands, wrists, feet, and ankles sunk into the wall as though it were slowly absorbing her.”
One of the best things about this novel is that it possesses an ambiguity that somehow remains there for the entire narrative. That Marjorie is the victim of demonic possession is absolutely clear until it stops being so, and then it becomes clear again a few pages before the opposite happens. The shifts all make sense, and they point to an author with a serious knack for playfulness and the power to make readers believe whatever he writes.
Superb psychological horror is something that makes your skin crawl and it makes its way into your brain and then nestles there, making you think twice about everything you read. A Head Full of Ghosts is like that; it plays around with your perception the way a piece by M.C. Escher does. The alleged possession and the events that surround it make this a great horror novel, but the hell the family goes through, the way the interact with each other, and the plethora of details, which range from a rich collection of pop culture references to little things like author Stephen Graham Jones making a cameo as a tutor, make it a great read for fans of any genre.
A Head Full of Ghosts is about reality, memories, familial drama, and religion. It’s also one more book that stands as proof that Paul Tremblay is the kind of author you should be excited about regardless of what genre his working in. Go read this now and see if you can crack the mystery.