There are some books that end leaving you utterly shattered: you reach the last page and think to yourself: did that just fucking happen? That’s exactly what ran through my mind when I finished Paul Tremblay’s blockbuster of a novel, A Head Full of Ghosts.
A Head Full of Ghosts is a brilliant book that follows a New England family in their descent into madness, following in the footsteps of some of the the genre’s greats, such as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.
Fifteen years ago, the Barrett family was destroyed when their fourteen year old daughter, Marjorie falls ill: it appears that she is suffering from schizophrenia. Her father turns to a long-dormant faith in the Catholic Church, and soon, he brings in a priest, and a reality TV company to document the family’s struggles.
We watch the story through the eyes of eight year old Mary, Marjorie’s sister, who watches as her sister turns from her best friend to a terrifying nightmare and as her idyllic family comes apart at the seams.
The story also plays out for the general public through their television screens as a reality show called The Possession, which follows the family as they cope with the demon within Marjorie. As the situation spirals out of control, the crew is witness to some really horrific events.
There’s a lot to unpack with this book, which makes it a really intriguing one to read. Tremblay, who’s earned a pair of Bram Stoker Awards and a bunch of nominations for his works, is a fantastic writer - his style is vivid, to the point and realistic, and the book hooked me from beginning to end. As one might expect, Tremblay is a bit of a horror fan, and A Head Full of Ghosts is a novel that’s deeply aware of its origins: there are references for a whole slew of horror novels and movies (notably The Exorcist, but also fellow writers such as Daryl Gregory), working those details into the plot.
Tremblay plays with form in some interesting ways with this book. One part, covering The Possession, is a blog retrospective on the impact of the reality television show and what it means in the context of horror: he’s literally analyzing the story and its surroundings within the novel itself, which is a really cool trick to play, and it works really nicely, even if it feels like you’re being hand-fed some of his conclusions.
One of those conclusions is the place in which this story fits in the horror genre, and how he’s essentially flipping some major conventions. A huge influence here is The Yellow Wallpaper, which deals with a young woman going mad. Tremblay especially focuses on how women are treated in horror, examining the imagery and utilizing it to his advantage.
There’s never really a clear view of the supernatural elements here - certainly, Mary doesn’t believe that there’s anything extraordinary at play here - and Marjorie seems to be perfectly normal, either faking or using her illness to prove a literary point. Or is she? There’s certainly a creeping, uncanny feeling that there’s more to the situation than meets the eye, which Tremblay leaves delightfully open for interpretation.
There’s a great moment where Marjorie questions her father, asking if you could really trust a ghost if it’s lying: maybe it’s a demon that’s so convincing, you can’t tell the difference. When the end of the book slams into you, it’s impossible not to consider that there really is something supernatural going on behind the scenes.
Majorie’s situation is only part of the story: the real horror here (as the in-story analysis helpfully points out), is the descent of the family as a whole. Tremblay positions the story as a sort of modern day gothic story, one bookended by the decline of the traditional male head of the family and the 2008 financial crisis. It’s John Barrett who becomes a tragic figure, becoming obsessed with his faith and the attempt to fix his family.
But, as I mentioned earlier, there’s quite a bit open to interpretation here, because part of this story is run through the eyes of an eight year old and a reality television show; neither are really reliable witnesses. The entire book is at points up for interpretation, and it’s wonderful to turn it over and over again.
That’s part of what makes this book so great: it’s a fantastic look at the horror genre as a whole, but stands apart as a fantastic story with a couple of explanations. The supernatural elements can come or go: regardless of their presence, the book runs right to the end with an utterly horrifying conclusion that absolutely blew me away.
What ultimately makes A Head Full of Ghosts such a great read is that it’s a gripping novel, one that builds and builds, increasing the tension and dread as the pages turn. It’s a book that’s certainly going to keep me up for a couple more nights yet.
A Head Full of Ghosts now available in paperback.