Many followers of this blog are probably familiar with A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. It made several 2015 year’s best lists and won the Stoker Award for best novel. Rightfully so because it is an excellent book.
Merry Barrett, our narrator, recounts her experiences as a child when her sister Marjorie becomes the subject of an exorcism and a reality television show. The narrative alternates between Merry’s memories as an eight-year-old, present-day Merry, and blog entries that focus on the reality show (The Possession) featured on a pop culture website. It’s an acute examination of mental health, religion, celebrity, sexuality…and…well…a hell of a lot of things.
The skill that Tremblay displays mashing all these ideas into a rather short book is impressive. The Barrett family is fleshed out well. You feel the bonds Marjorie and Merry have with their mother. The growing gulf between father and daughters is palpable. The skeeviness of Father Wanderly (who suggests the exorcism) adds an uncomfortable layer to the proceedings. The way the television production team ambivalently sexualizes a mentally-ill fourteen-year-old in the interests of ratings will make your stomach turn.
Invariably, as you read A Head Full of Ghosts, your mind will turn to the late, great William Peter Blatty’s seminal The Exorcist. Both books concern themselves with similar ideas and tread the same thematic grounds. And Tremblay doesn’t shy away from any comparisons, calling out Blatty’s classic by name on numerous occasions. Both derive psychological horror around the debasement of a young girl. Tremblay, however, plays coy with Marjorie’s possession. Is she actually possessed by a demon? How much can we rely on the memories of a little girl?
Some people like to differentiate the category of horror and thriller based on whether the book has a supernatural element. Is A Head Full of Ghosts horror? Or is it a thriller?
I urge you to read it. Make your own decision. You’ll have a devil of a time figuring it out.