In Paul Tremblay’s “A Head Full of Ghosts”, a psychological horror love letter to William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist” and other exorcism-centric books and movies, we can see flashes of utter brilliance. There is enough shiver-inducing horror and enough biting social commentary contained within to fill volumes of books, all delivered with a knowing wink and nudge.
The story is told from the point of view of Merry (Merideth) Barrett. The sole survivor of a horrific event that divided a community, riveted viewers of a reality show, and left the American public with a laundry list of unanswered questions.
Merry was just a kid when her older sister, fourteen year old Marjorie, began exhibiting signs of mental illness. Slowly, Marjorie transforms from the older and protective sister into a manipulative and terrifying entity capable of profane outbursts, self-mutilation, and acts of sexual depravity.
The family patriarch, John, begins to suspect that there are evil forces at work and eschews the psychiatric help that Marjorie so deeply needs in favor of church intervention. This new deep dive into faith-based healing drives a wedge between the parental units and soon the toxic effects of blame ripple throughout the family.
Out of work and out of money, John agrees to allow a camera crew to film the journey of Marjorie, from possessed young teenager through to an exorcism that will be played out as a reality show called “The Possession”.
With the arrival of the camera crews, things seem to escalate, and we become unsure if what we, the reader, is witnessing is fact or if we are being manipulated by an unreliable witness who may or may not have an agenda of her own.
Merry herself, as the adult narrator, is telling her story to a reporter who wants to write a tell-all account of what transpired during the filming of The Possession. We know that as a child, Merry was manipulative, a storyteller, and made up huge chunks of what she encountered during the possession of her older sister. How can we rely on her as an adult who has so much to gain from sharing her tale, a tale she has had years to fine-tune and with the knowledge that there is no one left who can fact-check her.
Tremblay’s characters are divisive and untrustworthy, each one vying for their own place in the spotlight. No one seems to care for Marjorie other than her mother who is made out to be an uncompromising villain as her sanity too begins to crumble under the enormous weight of balancing right and wrong with obligations to provide for her family.
“A Head Full of Ghosts” maintains a serpentine sense of dread that weaves through the narrative. The evil presence is palpable within the pages of this book and the sense of corruption and malevolence branches out from the pages like an evil specter entering our reality. It is effective horror that truly delivers some scares.
The novel jumps back and forth, from present to past in a dizzying fashion as grown Merry validates and obliterates what you were just lead to believe you witnessed. Nothing is as it seems.
Tremblay is smart enough of a writer to know that in writing a possession novel, you will inevitably draw comparison to The Exorcist or other possession-based books and film that came before it. The well is only so deep and Tremblay offsets our observations by beating us to the punch. He acknowledges that a lot of what you are reading seems like a poor man’s version of media that has presented his familiar scenes sometimes to greater effect. He literally slaps his own hand so we don’t have to. It works and adds a Meta layer to a book that otherwise would have come off as just another possession horror novel.
As with The Exorcist, there are a lot of questions surrounding the possessed Marjorie. Is she faking it? Is there an evil force gunning for her soul? Is she simply seeking attention? Are the people who are supposedly helping her doing more harm than good?
From the opening pages that set the tone of the novel, to the perfectly executed twist that makes you second-guess everything you thought you knew about what transpired, “A Head Full of Ghosts” demands your attention and manipulates you until the unsettling final page.