10 Aug Book Review | A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
We’re all familiar with a good old exorcism plot in the horror genre. They come with a certain set of expectations what with being around since, what, the 70’s?
Just because the exorcist narrative comes with a certain set of expectations doesn’t make it bad. It can just make a plot very… predictable at times. However, as a massive horror fan I don’t mind this. I’ll never get sick of reading stories and seeing films about haunted houses. But that’s just me.
So, whenever I purchased A Head Full of Ghosts I was comfortable in my expectations, quietly confident that I knew what sort of novel this would be.
Written by Paul Tremblay, A Head Full of Ghosts was published in June of last year. So, why am I only reviewing it now you may ask?
Although it was released over a year ago now, A Head Full of Ghosts hasn’t yet been released in the UK. I believe this September is when it will be released to the UK. Was I going to wait until then though? HELL NO.
My attention was brought to this novel through Lord of horror himself, Stephen King. He tweeted a few months back about how great and, importantly, SCARY A Head Full of Ghosts is and well, I was intrigued from that point on.
Every payday for months I went on Amazon and hovered over the Add to Basket button but because it was being shipped from America, it was rather expensive so I chickened out each time.
The few times that I DID find a reasonable price there was a problem with shipment. This happened TWICE. And it was devastating.
So, you can only imagine my excitement when I finally decided to splurge and the novel landed through my letter box. This had been months in the waiting. MONTHS! I had built this novel up so SO much. It was going to be the best thing since The Conjuring for me. And I LOVED The Conjuring. And The Conjuring 2.
The crucial question – did it live up to my massive, massive expectations? Well, yes. And no. (It was never going to be a simple answer was it?)
Centring around the Barretts, a family of four based in Massachusetts, the novel opens 15 years after the filming of The Possession – a “reality” tv show about older sister, fourteen year old Marjorie Barrett’s “possession.”
The novel is written through the first person perspective of younger sister, Meredith or “Merry” Barrett, who is now 23 but was 8 at the time of her sister’s possession. The older Merry recalls, for a best-selling novelist, her life during this troubling time.
A Head Full of Ghosts is an uncomfortable novel to read because it does not set up the core facts of the story from the onset but keeps you questioning throughout, expecting answers every page you turn. It does not leave any issues in either black or white, and this is both unsettling and frustrating. In a good way of course.
Right the way through the novel you are left waiting for an escalation, for the family unit to be torn apart, for the devil to start speaking through Marjorie, essentially for something big to happen.
Yet, it just never does.
Marjorie’s “possession” happens in fits and starts never amounting to much and in this way finds a form of realism. Yet, her strangeness, her behaviour and the stories she tells are enough to leave a lingering, uncomfortable doubt in the reader’s mind.
I would go as far as to say that A Head Full of Ghosts reaches a kind of parody of the horror stories of exorcisms we have been exposed to in film and literature. Tremblay is well aware of his audience’s expectations built through popular culture and boy, does he know how to play with them.
Without the escalation in Marjorie’s condition, the novel is jarring. Our attention is repeatedly drawn to parents, John and Sarah and their own deteriorating mental health and lives in general as life trails on in the Barrett household. With the central conflict, Marjorie’s illness, not resolved, the family home becomes stagnant and family, the very place where support and comfort could be found is now troubled.
The novel’s final blood curdling twist more than makes up for what felt like bad attempts at scaring the reader up until this point. It is an ending which leaves us with more questions, with so much unresolved – sorry to disappoint you but we never really do find out if Marjorie was “possessed” but in my own opinion, I don’t think so.
My favourite kind of horror stories are the paranormal kind, the ones with the demons and the ghosts and the devil etc, I LOVE that stuff.
I found A Head Full of Ghosts to be more psychologically focused, which I thought really worked as it placed the scare-factor into a more “real” framework.
Allow me elaborate. With ghosts and demons etc, they are more or less fiction or at least not generally a part of everyday life (well, not for most people…). What works so well in a Head Full of Ghosts is how there isn’t any comfort really found in the question of “could something like this legitimately happen?!?”
If Marjorie was simply schizophrenic as opposed to possessed then who’s to say it couldn’t happen to me or you? Mental health, unlike ghosts, is a real thing. And it’s a real thing that can make what we perceive as fiction i.e ghosts and demons, to be real. This is why Marjorie is consistently muttering about having a head full of ghosts (YEP, good old Tremblay incorporated the title into the narrative so he gets DOUBLE points) and telling her creepy stories about “growing things” and molasses.
So, this novel was fantastic because I went into it, like many others I am sure, expecting a good old story about a troubled teenager getting possessed but it was so much more than this and managed to unsettle me in a way that I couldn’t have ever predicted. And THAT’S the difference between a good horror story and a GREAT horror one.