BOOK REVIEW: A Head Full of Ghosts



Title: A Head Full of Ghosts

Author: Paul Tremblay

Publisher: Titan

Published: Out now

RRP: £7.99

The lives of the Barretts, a 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 halt 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, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. 

Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls the terrifying events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories begin to surface – and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed.

There’s been a lot of hype surrounding A Head Full of Ghosts, largely thanks to a high praise from Stephen King, and I’m happy to concur with the King of Horror.

A Head Full of Ghosts is told from the perspective of Merry Barrett; the insightful but limited point of view of child Merry, the thoughtful yet enigmatic adult Merry who agrees to be interviewed by a writer, and the irreverent horror blogger Merry, writing under a pseudonym. We switch between these three versions of Merry as she tells her story, remembers it with the benefit of an adult’s hindsight and then writes about it anonymously as if she were an outsider looking in. These three distinct and compelling voices work wonderfully to tie the narrative together, simultaneously showing the impact of the events which follow on Merry but leaving her something of a mystery.

Merry’s life is turned upside down when her older teenage sister Marjorie begins either displaying symptoms of schizophrenia or signs of possession, depending on whether or not you believe in demons. Young Merry is our eyes and ears, and through her we piece together the gaps to what the adults around her don’t explain; her mother the skeptic who looks to the medical profession for answers, while her father, increasingly overwhelmed following the loss of his job, looks to God. Marjorie shows no signs of improvement and between their loss of income and Marjorie’s medical bills, they begin to struggle for money. In desperation, they agree to be filmed for a reality TV show called The Possession. This may seem barbaric, and it is – but given a choice between allowing a camera crew in their home and losing it and any remaining stability for Marjorie, it’s understandable.

Young Merry is also our window into Marjorie’s world, being the closest thing she has to a confidante. It’s clear Merry adores Marjorie and will do anything for her, and the heart of the story is their close yet complex relationship. While Marjorie’s possession covers some familiar ground – vomiting, masturbation – the real goosebumps here are in the unsettling mind games she plays with Merry, alternately comforting and scaring her baby sister when they’re alone or when Merry is asleep, one moment implying she’s really possessed and the next that it’s all pretend. While there are flashier, more gruesome scenes in the book, those where Marjorie tells Merry stories of disasters and familicide, threatens her or moves her things around are the most powerful. The only thing that is clear is that whatever the truth is, Marjorie needs help, and her family doesn’t know how to give it to her.

If the relationship between Merry and Marjorie is the heart of A Head Full of Ghosts, then love and knowledge of horror is its blood. Horror fans are very familiar with possession stories: a young, innocent girl is taken over by an evil spirit which tortures her and her loved ones by alternately terrifying or horrifying them. We know this music; Paul Tremblay changes the beat.

Smart and self-aware, A Head Full of Ghosts does for the possession genre what Scream did for slashers. Merry’s blog is even called The Last Final Girl, a reference to the old horror trope of the sole survivor always being the Virgin or Innocent (like The Cabin in the Woods’ Director says, “we work with what we have”). Her blogging alter ego is a witty horror uberfan who unflinchingly dissects each episode of The Possession; she analyses the production decisions and themes of middle class decline and fear of the female body with plenty of gusto and gallows humour, and makes comparisons with its most obvious influence, The Exorcist. It’s fascinating, fun and very disturbing given that this obsessive level of knowledge is gleefully shared with us by a member of the family.

However, the meta aspect doesn’t at any point make the stakes feel any less, or the reader feel more removed. The Possession needs its big series finale of an exorcism, and the tension is steadily increased as Marjorie’s behaviour escalates. We’re pulled along by an undercurrent full of unseen monsters until the big scene and a sucker punch of an ending as Merry finally reveals her secrets.

A Head Full of Ghosts deftly pulls together familiar horror tropes to serve up an original psychological frightfest about the deadliness of family dysfunction and sickness in suburbia, of how trust and love can lead us down twisted paths that end in darkness. If you’re looking for the perfect book to curl up with over Halloween, A Head Full of Ghosts is it.

GS rating: 4/5
GS Blogger: Michaela Gray (@bookiesnacksize)

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