“A Head Full of Ghosts” is a Darkly Gorgeous bit of Pop Culture and Organic Terror

Last year Paul Tremblay quietly dropped the unsettling novel A Head Full of Ghosts, the story of young Merry Barrett as she tells it (through several different angles). What follows is an interview, but it’s not just that. It’s a childhood story, told through the eyes of an adult who may not have the best recollection of being 8 and terrified. It’s a dialog between two women, one professional and coming into her own and the other still dealing with deep-seated trauma. It’s also a series of blog posts on a television series. Each of these is true and  yet each is also full of potential lies and opaque reality.

23019294The novel tells the story of Merry Barrett and her family, as told to an author looking to break into nonfiction and wants to start with this story. Merry tells her about the possession of her sister, Marjorine, when the girls were young. Marjorine begins by merely being unsettling, sneaking into her sister’s room and telling her horrific stories as she warps a game they used to play. The two girls are creative, using an old storybook to draw on and write in as they make up new stories that they consider better. As this gets warped the author really starts to layer in the uncomfortable corruption of youth using the small stories as metaphors.

One of the things the book uses well a foreshadowed sense of inevitability, one of my favorite things about storytelling. I love a good twist ending, don’t mistake me, but there’s something awesome about knowing what is coming and being unable to stop it but also unable to look away. We are voyeurs in this world, looking at the the family much as the viewers of the fictional television show.

And let’s talk about that. At first the story is simple enough in its blog form, a woman talking about the issues and problems that live in the writing of a reality television show called The Possession, a show that supposedly follows the reality of the Barrett family. The blog picks it to pieces, attempting to remove all basis for belief in what happened. It calls in a lot of horror references, possession stories, and holes to poke in the story Marjorine tells.

paul-tremblay
Author Paul Tremblay

Because yes, it’s Marjorine that is seemingly possessed. But is she? The story is duplicitous at almost every turn. She says she’s lying, then she might not be. Then she cannot get away from possession, but seems not to be. The television crew finds holes, but they things happen they cannot explain. Is she really possessed or is she not?

And what of Merry, the girl who admits that she cannot remember as much from when she was 8 years old as the author might want. With plots circling each other and uncertainty levelled through all of the stories, Merry leads the author on a trip through her worst memories and the scares are deeply unsettling.

I’m usually against a large amount of pop culture references, as they make everything seem timely and stories can lose a lot of their possibility of longevity and on top of that it 9781785653674just comes off as pandering a lot of the time. Here, though, it is so masterfully inserted into the story that I actually fell into it quickly. One of the major complaints in horror film fandom is “why don’t these people in a zombie apocalypse know what a zombie is?” or “that girl is possessed, have these guys never seen The Exorcist?” In this world, however, these things are real and exist. In fact, Marjorine’s possible possession is held up against these horror stories by the blog (entertainingly titled “The Last Final Girl”). The online writer, Karen, is queen of pop culture references and digs deep enough to drop Stephen Graham Smith and Sara Gran in a way that doesn’t feel like showing off, it’s just stuff an obsessive horror fan would know.

So is Marjorine possessed? It’s worth the read to find out, and the ending is something I would not have seen coming a mile away. This is truly one of the more unsettling modern books that I’ve ever read and is one that I’ll be handing out as gifts at Christmases or birthdays. When you burn through something like this in a couple of days and it keeps you up at night it’s a pretty amazing sell. Paul Tremblay is new to me but I’ll be looking for his name when I hit the stores from now on, he’s put together something darkly wonderful.

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