Review: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay - Can true evil lurk within?

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Released: 27th September 2016
Published by: Titan Books
Genre: Horror
Source: Borrowed
Pages: 363
My Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
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 descent into madness. As their stable 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. With John, Marjorie's father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking 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 that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface - and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.
As winner of the Bram Stoker prize in 2015, scary enough to spook Stephen King and commended by Megan Abbott, one of my favourite authors, it's fair to say A Head Full of Ghosts had a lot to prove. I'll be the first to admit that horror isn't a genre I'll typically venture into, but this dubiously twisted novel is one I don't regret giving a chance. Paul Tremblay knows exactly how to keep readers invested in the fate of this dangerously dysfunctional family. If you want to look deeper though, I feel the essence of this book is that he retains a sense of ambiguity which leaves you questioning whether the source of the chaos is of this world, or another realm altogether. 

She kept talking and she kept talking. I thought she would never stop. Standing there, I felt the sun pour through the windows, setting and rising on my back. The sunroom had become a sundial measuring the geological age of my psychological torture.

A Head Full of Ghosts may not have outright 'scared' me, but it definitely was a mind-bending experience. The story is told largely from Merry's perspective recounting the events which unfolded regarding her sister, and the reality TV show The Possession which documented the lives of her family. Comparisons can be made between her reaction to Marjorie's behaviour as an eight-year old, and fifteen years later when being interviewed by a reporter. Merry's childhood innocence tainted by the terror of an older sibling morphing into someone unrecognisable, seems to have shaped her into cloistered horror blogger she had become, but calls into question the reliability of her narration.

It is ironic and quite 'meta' that as 'Karen Brissette' Merry is able to publish posts to 'The Last Final Girl' about all things relating to the genre, referencing other renowned horror films when dissecting the episodes of The Possession. I'm sure horror aficionados would appreciate these allusions more than a novice like myself, but I do commend the author in weaving all these narrative elements together in such a way that we're always on the brink of discovering the truth - and yet at every dark turn it eludes us once more. 

Or maybe. Maybe. Maybe I'm just a lost, confused kid, scared of what's happening to me, to my family, to the world, and I hate school and I have no friends, and I spend my days sleeping with my iPod cranked up as loud as it'll go, trying not to go completely crazy, and with all that time alone I'm looking shit up on the Internet, looking up the same stuff over and over, and I memorize it all because I'm wicked smart, because I have to fill my head with something other than the ghosts.

When the facts of Marjorie's diagnosis are obscured by the idea that her father is convinced she is 'possessed', in conjunction with the sensationalism of reality TV, the plot takes on an even more labyrinthine quality. Is her father's proselytism justified for the right reasons? Is Marjorie actually putting on a teenage 'cry for help'? These fundamental questions are what kept the pages turning for me, and even upon finishing the book you'll be left pondering them, and others, even more. There were definitely some disturbing twists towards the end which pull back part of the curtain obscuring the skeleton of this story, but I think it would take a second reading to truly grasp it all. 


A Head Full of Ghosts is an eerie read presenting a dichotomy in the sanity of its characters, while simultaneously teasing the minds of those who brave its pages. 


  1. This sounds fascinating and like it would mess with your mind a lot! I'll have to check this out.

    1. It was definitely something different - the suspense and psychological aspects do make for an addictive read.


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