This is a series of book reviews of my favorite books published between 2010 and 2019.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay (2015)
When she was eight years old, Merry’s big sister Marjorie developed severe schizophrenia — or perhaps, as their dad came to believe, she was possessed by a demon. Desperate for both money and a cure, Marjorie’s parents agreed to let a reality TV show film her exorcism, with disastrous results.
This horror novel is structured to stretch the bounds of the unreliable narrator and mess with the reader’s mind. At first, the story is related by twenty-four-year-old Meredith, who admits that her memories of what happened are foggy and full of holes. Interspersed with this are blog posts picking apart in detail the filmed (and edited) version of events. The bulk of the story is actually seen through the eyes of eight-year-old Merry, who is kept in the dark by the adults around her as to what is happening and is prone to inventing things, as all children are. It is clear early on that Merry’s family is no longer with us, so Meredith in her different incarnations is the only one left who can tell the story. Even as she describes Marjorie’s increasingly disturbing episodes, we have to question them. Is she really possessed, or is she faking — she tells Merry at one point she is — or is the demon making her say that as well? Like most good horror fiction, this book keeps the reader constantly off-kilter.
A Head Full of Ghosts is a treat for the horror fan, as it is packed with references to classic horror fiction and films. It is clear that adult Merry is a huge horror fan herself and frequently compares her supposedly true story to fiction. The Exorcist references are obvious, and the book gleefully plays with the tropes introduced in that book and film, but there are also allusions to Lovecraft, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and the entire genre of found footage films, among many others.
Tremblay ratchets up the tension relentlessly, until we are compelled to keep reading to find out what happens at the exorcism and what becomes of Merry’s family. But–again like a lot of good horror–Tremblay lets readers draw their own conclusions about what actually happened. This ambiguity may frustrate some readers, but Tremblay leaves enough clues to help us come to a satisfying resolution.