Backlist Burndown: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
As book bloggers, sometimes we get so caught up reading review titles and new releases that we end up missing out on a lot previously published books. As a result, one of my goals this year is to take more time to catch up with my backlist, especially in my personal reading pile. And it seems I’m not the only one. Backlist Burndown is a new meme started by Lisa of Tenacious Reader. Every last Friday of the month, she’ll be posting a review of a backlist book and is inviting anyone interested to do the same. Of course, you can also review backlist books any day you want, as often you want, but be sure to watch for her post at the end of the month to link up!
Seeing as I’ve been having such good luck with the Horror genre lately, I decided to check out…
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: William Morrow (June 2, 2015)
Length: 286 pages
I could probably write two reviews for A Head Full of Ghosts, a really long version or a shorter version. I’m going with the short version though (okay, short for me) because then there will be no chance of revealing any spoilers. This is most definitely a book where you’ll want to experience all the surprises and twists for yourself. That said, I wish more people I know have read A Head Full of Ghosts so I could hit them up and just let loose flailing about how thoroughly this book fucked with my mind. I could go on forever. This, my friends, is a book practically made for intense speculation and discussion.
At its heart, this book is a possession story. (Well, actually it’s a lot more complicated than that, but let’s just roll with it for the sake of simplicity. Sorry for being vague, but like I said, I’m striving for non-spoilery.) Enter the Barretts, a seemingly average suburban New England family. Like many others, they were hit by hard times and had to struggle to make ends meet. Dad John Barrett lost his job and had been unemployed for about a year and a half, and mom Sarah became the family’s soul breadwinner. Finances were further strained when their fourteen-year-old daughter Marjorie started getting sick, displaying symptoms of psychosis. Doctors, however, were unable to help. Reluctantly, the family decided to turn to the Catholic Church. A priest called Father Wanderly suggested that Marjorie could be under the influence of a demon. A TV production company was contacted, and they in turn offered the Barretts money if they agreed to be filmed for the exorcism.
The subsequent events are recounted by little sister Meredith “Merry” Barrett fifteen years later, now twenty-three years old and being interviewed by bestselling writer Rachel Neville for a book about “The Possession”, a six-episode Discovery Channel reality show that chronicled the events that befell the Barretts as they happened.
Almost immediately, I was struck by the brilliance of using the show as one of the key premises. By its nature, “reality” TV is a mawkish blend of fact and fiction, blurring the lines between carefully constructed illusion and true candidness. By extension, A Head Full of Ghosts gave me a similar feeling, though the ambiguousness there was more organic, due to our protagonist Merry being one hell of an unreliable narrator. She even admits as much, that the perceptions of her then eight-year-old self might not pass muster or that her own memories could be faulty and compromised, having re-watched all the episodes of “The Possession” upwards of a few dozen times herself. The adult Merry is also a pop culture junkie, having a taste for classic horror movies like The Exorcist or The Haunting of Hill House, so any similar elements you will undoubtedly spot in the book are not only by design, but are placed there to torture you some more and make you wonder. What was the real truth versus what was scripted or constructed in the mind of a confused and frightened girl with an overactive imagination? What really happened to Marjorie Barrett? I’m actually dying to tell you what I personally think, but again, I can’t, at least not in this review, and it’s really killing me here.
All I’ll say is, Merry’s narrative broke my heart. We always try to shield our children, keep them in the dark about certain things for “their own protection”, but the truth is they probably know more than they let on. I can’t really decide what’s worse or more traumatic, the idea of a young child having to experience the things Marjorie did to her family, or of little Merry standing witness to the crumbling relationships around her in what was once a stable and happy home. The demons we fear aren’t always the supernatural kind.
Finally, we get to the one question people always ask when it comes to horror. Was A Head Full of Ghosts scary? I’m sure for some readers, some scenes in book will keep them up at night or induce a few nightmares. But for me, it’s less about how much that the book scared me and more about how unsettled it made me feel. Even now, a lot of its ideas weigh heavily on my mind or are sitting like stones in the pit of my stomach. When it comes to a horror novel, I actually think that’s more effective than outright creeping me out.
So there you have it, my “short” review of A Head Full of Ghosts. Can you imagine what the long version would look like? I could certainly fill twice as much space if I were to go into my speculations at length, but I’ll just close with my enthusiastic recommendation. If you enjoy modern horror, this is a book you really need to check out.