Horrorible Review: “A Head Full of Ghosts”

Enjoy this Monday with Mildred!

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay book cover

A Head Full of Ghosts

Author Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts is a heartrending story of what the cover blurb describes as a “normal suburban New England family” who has a schizophrenic daughter making life difficult for everyone. A priest steps in and talks the family into letting a tv show follow an exorcism of the daughter.

The blurb is somewhat misleading.  There is a problem with the older daughter, Marjorie, but the author plays around with the is she or isn’t she possessed by a demon idea most of the way through the book.  She isn’t obviously schizophrenic – or is she?  The priest does play a role in having the family’s travails handled by a Hollywood company, turning out the future history classic show The Possession. This is the weakest aspect of the book, I think. The film crew shows up and takes over the lives of the Barretts, but they don’t affect the plot that much.  As Amy Farrah Fowler pointed out to Sheldon and the gang in The Big Bang Theory concerning Indiana Jones, if they were taken out of the plot nothing would change so they may as well have not been included.

As for the Barretts being “a normal suburban family”, I can’t say much about what is or isn’t normal because I wasn’t a part of the scene myself, but the family as portrayed in the book is not full of smoothly loving and supportive people, except for Merry, the eight year old who narrates most of the book. The Barretts are struggling financially, they have a young teenager making everyone’s life miserable, and they’re egocentric to the point of near neglect of the younger daughter, Merry. I wanted to reach into the book and smack both the parents upside the head more than a few times.  On further thought, I guess that is normal.

The big issue, of course, is how much do you REALLY remember from that age? How much can you trust what a little girl sees, or understands what she sees? The bookends to eight year old Merry’s story is the reflections of the older Merry, being interviewed about the filming of The Possession and the shattering events that follow. Even seeing the story in what seems like a fantastically intimate way will leave you guessing at the end just how much of it is true or believable when you’re finished reading.  You will find yourself wanting to believe and not wanting to believe, all at the same time.

I use the words heartrending and shattering because that’s what will happen to the reader by the end of the book.  The reader becomes very intimate with the family by the end.  Through Merry we have interacted with all of them a lot, and she loves her family fiercely, despite none of them being loveable. The author teases us with a drib and a drab of foreshadowing throughout, building a large sense of dread the more you get to know the Barretts. At the end there is both no surprise and a bombshell all at once, which I found both brilliant and disturbing. This is also based on the idea that Merry’s memory may not be entirely trustworthy, or that she didn’t truly understand what was going on around her as a child.

Tremblay is a showoff horror nerd, referencing some classic horror cinema through the blog posts that dot the book.  The problem is, the book is set in the future at least fourteen years and the examples he uses date from the 60s and 70s to the early 2000s.  Young people in the 2030s are not going to be familiar with movies like The Shining or The Exorcist, except for other horror nerds.  Younger readers of the book already won’t get his references because most of them will have almost certainly not seen them.

I’m not going to actually talk about the blog, because to do more than mention it would spoil the book some. But it would be an interesting topic of conversation.

The pacing is a little slow throughout but I was willing to forgive it because of the payoff at the end.  Merry sometimes felt more like a little boy than a little girl, but I also forgave that, because how easy can it be for a grown man to channel a little girl? Other than those, my problems with the book were small and not important.

This is an excellent bit of writing that can be considered either a horror novel or not, whichever you prefer.  Either way, it’s a very emotional ride and I recommend you read it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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