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A Head Full of Ghosts: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 2, 2015
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“A Head Full of Ghosts scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.” (Stephen King)
“Paul Tremblay’s terrific A Head Full of Ghosts generates a haze of an altogether more serious kind: the pleasurable fog of calculated, perfectly balanced ambiguity.” (New York Times Book Review)
“…progressively gripping and suspenseful — (Tremblay’s) ultimate, bloodcurdling revelation is as sickeningly satisfying as it is masterful.” (NPR Books)
“Tremblay expertly ratchets up the suspense until the tension is almost at its breaking point.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“[B]rilliantly creepy.” (Library Journal)
“The novel is stylishly written and well-conceived.” (Booklist)
“Gripping and truly scary, this book feels of the moment in a way few thrillers do.” (B&N Reads)
“[A] scary story, indeed.” (BookPage)
“A mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising disturbing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.” (Buzzfeed)
“[A] creepy, interesting read, great for horror fans.” (SFRevu)
From the Back Cover
A chilling domestic drama that blends psychological suspense with a touch of modern horror from a new, brilliantly imaginative master
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 bizarre outbursts and subsequent descent into madness. As their 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 for a reality television show. With John, Marjorie's father, out of work for more than a year and medical bills looming, the family reluctantly agrees to be filmed—never imagining that The Possession would become an instant hit. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the 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 from her childhood—she was just eight years old—painful memories and long-buried secrets that clash with the television broadcast and the Internet blogs begin to surface. A mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising disturbing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.
A Head Full of Ghosts is a terrifying tale told with inventive literary flair and unrelenting suspense that craftily, cannily, and inexorably builds to a truly shocking ending.
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With that being said, this book is much more than I was expecting. Having thought I was just going to get a good scare was quickly replaced by the reality that this isn't what the book is about. Sure, there are scary moments, times when readers skin will crawl, and times when I felt as if I was going just as mad as some of the characters. But it is also deeply unsettling in a realistic way as it skillfully portrays mental illness and its effects on the family. Additionally, it depicts a family’s decent in a societal way and the effects it also has. Put all this together and you get a nearly brilliant novel that will chill you to the core.
I don’t want to say much more about the plot because the books summary does a nice job in its description but also because I think that to fully grasp what is happening in the story that you need to read it on your own without spoilers. I will say this though, there is a lot going on in this novel. Schizophrenia, depression, paranoia, depression, and susceptibility are integral parts of the novel. So are possession, demons, and exorcism. This book will make you nervous. It may make you look over your shoulder when you enter a dark room. And it will scare the crap out of you. Should you read it? I would recommend it...
It doesn't take long for Tremblay's ambition to make itself known. A Head Full of Ghosts opens with Merry Barrett returning to her childhood home, accompanied by a writer who's helping her tell the "official" version of her story and what happened to her sister Marjorie. See, a lot of people know the story already, because Merry's childhood ended up being used as a reality television series called The Possession, a huge hit up until...well, you'll see. So what we get in A Head Full of Ghosts isn't exactly an "objective" account of what happened to Marjorie and the Barretts; what we're getting is mostly Merry's memories, some of which, she admits, may have been influenced by the TV show, or may be things that she's lied about for so long she's struggled to remember the truth. And if that's not enough, Tremblay throws in some blog post analyses of the episodes of The Possession from a horror fan, discussing the story not only as it was presented on television, but picking at all of the tropes Tremblay is tossing out.
Indeed, there's little way to explain how much fun this book is to horror fans without getting into the way Tremblay picks apart his own influences and inspirations. Just as you're thinking "this feels like a rip from The Exorcist" or "do you think anyone in this book remembers the story 'The Yellow Wallpaper'", Tremblay uses the blog posts to make the allusions and references clear, laying out for all to see the DNA of the story, but also turning the book and story into something muddier and less clear. Did all of this happen? Is this all a case of people echoing movies and TV shows that shaped their perception of what "possession" was? Where does the truth come in?
To Tremblay's credit - and to the irritation of many, I bet - there aren't a lot of clear answers here. A Head Full of Ghosts leaves a lot open to interpretation, down to the final pages, which are filled with moments that might - or might not - change everything. That could be frustrating for many, but for me, Tremblay's earned his ambiguity; this is a story about how we perceive things, and how motives aren't always cut and dry. There's no arguing about the events of the story - everyone agrees on those. What's more up for debate is what it all means, and what caused it all - and that's far more compelling fare.
It doesn't hurt, though, that A Head Full of Ghosts is genuinely scary, maybe all the more so for our inability to understand why some of this is happening. Is Marjorie mentally ill, or is she possessed? Neither explanation is entirely satisfying, because neither can adequately explain some of the truly unsettling, disturbing events of the story - even our blog posts, doing their best to unpack the tricks of the TV trade, struggle on a few points. But that's okay; what makes the best horror is a degree of uncertainty, of unease as to what's really going on. It's just that few books make that part of the text itself, filtering the story through unreliable narrator after unreliable narrator until we're not sure who to believe. (It's no coincidence that Merry shares a nickname with one of horror's great unreliable narrators, We Have Always Lived in the Castle's Merrycat.) All we know for sure is the horror that comes out of those primal, uneasy moments - and no explanation is going to help make any more sense out of some of it.
It just never drew me in as thoroughly as I think it needed to in order to work. It set up the ending like a twist, yet explained it in advance. It mocked itself as a knock-off of THE EXORCIST, but then never did much beyond that. The worst part, by far, were interludes in which the main character, in blog form, explained the subtext of the story.
Man, just talking about that part makes me want to knock a star off the rating. Really, it's an uneven read, neither short enough to pack the punch it wants to, nor long enough to plumb the depths it needs to.