An undeniable truth about myself and my reading preferences: scary stories belong to October, the way that The Hobbit belongs to November and Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather belongs in December. This is not to say that I always succeed in these traditions, but the thought is never far from my mind. When I was approached to tackle Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts for SpecChic’s group review of this year’s World Fantasy Award nominees, it was was easy to say yes. Now, granted, we handed these reading assignments out a while ago, and I already owned the book, but until October started rolling closer, it was hard for me to give A Head Full of Ghosts the attention that it deserved. Once I turned my full focus to it, I wasn’t disappointed.
I need two things to be absolutely clear before I go much further in this review:
- The ending of the book made me want to fling it across the room.
- I have never read a book that was quite this masterful in the art of horror.
I spent a great deal of time in college learning how to properly take books apart to see how they worked. I learned what it meant to not entirely like a book while being able to appreciate it for what it did. This is something that I experienced strongly with Tremblay’s novel. With that said, on with the business part of things.
A Head Full of Ghosts (2015)
Written by: Paul Tremblay
Pages: 309 (Kindle)
Publisher: William Morrow
Why I Chose It: As I said before, I like a good scary story for October. This novel was already on my radar after it received a glowing recommendation from one of my best friends in 2015.
A chilling thriller that brilliantly blends psychological suspense and supernatural horror, reminiscent of Stephen King’s The Shining, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.
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.
Review will not include spoilers. To spoil would be to ruin the experience.
Time to start unpacking! I said already that I wanted to throw the book across the room when I finished it. My reasoning for this was quite simple: I occasionally have the temperament of an eight year old, and the somewhat unsatisfying ending made me incredibly frustrated. I subjected my extremely patient spouse to my opinions on the book for at least ten minutes (which wouldn’t have been a problem if I hadn’t stayed up until after 1am to finish reading). It was while talking out the ending with Spouse that I figured out what Tremblay wasn’t saying, what he was implying, and what that meant for the rest of the novel. Thus the desire to fling the book.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a masterful work. The list of accolades and blurbs on Amazon’s page is staggering. The top comment came from no less than Stephen King himself, who stated: “A Head Full of Ghosts scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.” High praise from Mr. King.
I’m not going to offer a plot summary; you can look that up elsewhere. What I want to discuss, primarily, is the way that Tremblay tells the story. It’s extremely well done and terrifically frustrating once the reader realizes what it took me a good portion of the book to fully comprehend. The story is told through the voice of one Meredith Barrett. Merry was a child when she lived through the most horrific experience of her entire life. Her beloved older sister began experiencing what was either a demonic possession or a psychotic break. It’s never quite clear which of the two is actually happening. This is not a new or unique horror story. The problem? Merry is an incredibly untrustworthy narrator. She is telling her story fifteen years after the fact to an author who’s writing a memoir on Merry’s family. The book is supposed to detail events up to and including a reality television show. You don’t realize just how untrustworthy that Merry is until the end of the book draws nigh. She admits to stretching the truth on some occasions and outright lying on others. When the reader realizes just how deeply Merry has bought into her own version of the truth, everything is thrown into question.
This is what makes the novel so horrifying. Nothing is clear cut. There is absolutely no black or white in what one reads. I experienced a deeply unsettling feeling while reading. I don’t think that I’ve ever been quite this disturbed while reading a horror novel before. It wasn’t the plot that threw me out of my comfort zone, it was not knowing the so-called absolute truth of what I was reading. When I read Stephen King’s Christine, for example, I trusted that what I was reading was the truth as the character knew it. I had no reason whatsoever to think that Dennis, the primary narrator of the novel, was recounting anything other than actual events that he personally experienced. You absolutely do not get that with this novel’s narrator.
The story itself is a bit unremarkable as far as horror novels go. Girl is either possessed or mentally ill. Family begins to deteriorate under the pressure of whatever is happening to said girl. Enter reality television and a priest. Then a brief, unnamed cameo by a “church” that goes by a name that rhymes with “Breastboro.” The horror occurs in Tremblay’s skilled hands as he flings open the doors on the terrible things that haunt our every day life. How monstrous is a so-called religious organization that carries around signs proclaiming that a child is going to hell, and does so outside of her very home? How tragic and frightening is it to see what lengths a father, fallen from grace due to endless unemployment, is willing to go to when he loses his role as the primary breadwinner of the home? How absolutely terrifying is mental illness and the lack of understanding that exists in society today? These things are all frightening enough on their own without even thinking about adding an element of the supernatural.
This book was most definitely worth the time and money. I can’t say that I liked it; it’s not that kind of book, really. I can say that I most certainly appreciate it and consider it to be an excellent example of modern storytelling, horror elements aside. It’s very nearly literary in style and form. I can’t say more than what I’ve written here without spoiling something for potential readers. If you’ve a strong stomach and enjoy being unsettled, pick up this book. If you like easy, open and shut stories, avoid this one.