A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
William Morrow (June 2015)
304 pages; $14.58 paperback/$12.99 ebook
Reviewed by Michael Wilson
Paul Tremblay’s fiction has been gracing bookstores and bookshelves for well over a decade. No stranger to horror, Paul’s picked up three Stoker Award nominations – including First Novel for The Little Sleep – and has been on the Board of Directors for the Shirley Jackson Award since it was founded in 2007. In spite of all his accolades, A Head Full of Ghosts has put him on the horror map more than anything he’s released or achieved previously. It’s the horror novel of 2015 that everyone’s talking about. Even Stephen King took to Twitter to give his approval, declaring, “A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay: Scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.” But is such unadulterated admiration really warranted or are we dealing with over-hyped and under-delivered horror art?
We’ve seen a great deal of updates to classic horror tropes in recent years. New takes on the vampire, zombie, werewolf and ghost story have flooded bookshop horror sections worldwide. But an update to the humble exorcism story has for the most part been missing, until now. A Head Full of Ghosts tells the story of the Barratt family and the chaos that ensues when their fourteen-year-old daughter Marjorie begins to behave uncharacteristically. The narrative is primarily presented through the eyes of Marjorie’s younger sister, eight-year-old Merry (yes that’s a nod to Shirley Jackson’s Merricat), but is also told through a series of blog posts, an interview with twenty-three-year old Merry and the reality television show following the family, The Possession.
The story lives up to the hype and is surely an early contender for horror novel of the year. Tremblay manages to pack a treasure chest of horror culture references into his novel (some blatant, some obscure – there’s even a cameo from an alternative version of Stephen Graham Jones) but does so in a way that serves the story without coming across as self-indulgent. This is a story for horror fans written by a heart-on-the-sleeve horror fan. Yet it’s so much more than that.
There’s a sense of unease from the get-go that never lets up because we never quite understand what it is that’s happening to Marjorie. Such is the ambiguity in Marjorie’s malady that it creates marital tensions between the Barratt parents. Marjorie’s mother, Sarah, seeks treatment for Marjorie through healthcare and medical professions whereas Marjorie’s father, John, turns to religion and local priest Father Wanderly. The tension is intensified further when, struggling to meet their mounting medical bills, the family let a camera crew into their house to film The Possession. The exploitative nature of reality television and how it’s often anything but “reality” is left exposed as are the family to the unsupportive general public. Perhaps it’s the undignified way the Barratts are treated that is scariest of all; or perhaps it’s the fact a mentally ill girl becomes a circus attraction for the entertainment of the masses; then again, perhaps what’s really scary is attempting to medicate a girl possessed by something otherworldly…
Tremblay refuses to provide black-and-white answers, refuses to take shortcuts and demands that we, too, contemplate the genesis of Marjorie’s sickness. Yet we will never find the answers, just incomplete fragments reflected on broken glass. And so the possession continues beyond the page. So open A Head Full of Ghosts at your discretion, because once opened, gentle reader, it can never truly be closed.