by Paul Tremblay
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.
It seems like A Head Full of Ghosts is everywhere lately. Three of my virtual book clubs selected it as their book of the month last month, two bookstores in my neighborhood have featured its cover art in their window displays, and some of my favorite horror instagram accounts have been raving about it for months. Goodreads itself has consistently suggested it to me, and the reviews there are pretty polarized. Some readers are obsessed, some couldn’t stand it. Given that it’s been burning a hole through my To Read list for over a year, I felt like it was past time to give Tremblay’s novel a shot.
My personal experience was just as conflicted as that of the Goodreads community on the whole. Part of me really enjoyed this novel, and I read it fairly quickly. The overall concept was fascinating–a 21st century The Exorcist examined through the lens of pop culture and our voyeuristic obsession with reality tv. I am a huge fan of horror/pop culture blends, and am an even bigger fan of Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism. I thought I knew just what to expect from A Head Full of Ghosts, but this novel’s psychological approach completely took me by surprise.
This novel won’t give you a straight yes or no. If you’re someone who needs clear cut answers, it may not be the book for you. You will spend 286 pages wondering whether Marjorie Barrett’s torment is spiritual or psychological in nature. This debate and the reality-show context of the novel raise questions about the morality of our culture’s objectification of the less fortunate and/ or mentally ill. Unfortunately, this fascinating and timely debate also introduced my biggest complaint about the novel: Karen.
About a quarter of this novel is told from the perspective of a blogger writing about the famous “The Possession” television series. Karen writes about the social, feminist, and political implications of the series, and asks many of those morality questions I referred to in plain english. Actually, less plain english, more early 2000’s “blog-speak.” I absolutely could not stand Karen’s portion of the novel. The voice of her chapters was like fingernails on a chalkboard, and I found myself almost missing main plot points that were revealed during these chapters because I was rushing so fast to get through these intolerable passages. Her reading between the lines of the television series felt more like Tremblay spoon feeding his readers concepts he was worried we would miss. It felt condescending, and really killed the momentum of the novel for me. Once I was able to get back into the novel and reached its conclusion, I found myself extremely conflicted.
I don’t want to spoil the finale for you, but I will say that half of me loved this ending and the other half was extremely irritated. It’s a decent ending, however, it felt, at best, extremely derivative of another work, and at worst like a complete ripoff of a well known horror novel. I’ll let you decide how you feel about the conclusion if you choose to read this one, but I’d advise you to avoid comparison as you read, unless you’re seriously into literary déjà vu.
All in all, not the worst, not the best.