Anyone looking at my Goodreads profile will see I’ve read a load more books than I’ve been reviewing. Honestly it’s because I was slightly behind on my targets and I needed to churn through some easy reads. That said there’s also a couple of books that I really don’t have the energy to review as they so completely bored me I don’t want to spend another minute thinking about them.
That must mean that today’s book, A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay at least has the honour of being reviewable. Well done Paul. It’s always said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but I admit that this cover grabbed me. It’s a strong design and the endorsement by Stephen King wasn’t hurting it any.
The book starts roughly ten to fifteen years into the future. An author is asking a young woman to recount details of a traumatic childhood in which, for all intents and purposes, her older sister was possessed by a demon. What made this supposed possession famous was that the family had agreed for the possession and subsequent exorcism to be filmed for a reality television show.
Why? What’s going on? It’s all a bit classic Exorcist/Emily Rose isn’t it? We learn that the family is struggling to make ends meet. The father, John Barrett, has lost his job at the toy factory and his eldest daughter, Marjorie, is displaying signs of severe schizophrenia. Her visits with the psychiatrist aren’t helping her and her mental state is deteriorating. While rediscovering his religious side, John gets to know Father Wanderly, who suggests the televised exorcism.
We’re experiencing all this from the perspective of the young woman talking to the narrator. Meredith, or Merry, was only eight years old at the time of these events and we only learn about some of the events that occur through her eavesdropping. Similarly everything we see of Marjorie’s supernatural problems is only when Merry is in the room one way or the other. Through Merry we know that Marjorie has been climbing the walls, vomiting, sneaking around the house into places she couldn’t have got to without supernatural help. To a certain extent we’re back to that old problem: the unreliable narrator.
There are a number of questions popping up here:
Is Marjorie really possessed? Is it, as her mother points out, harder to believe that Marjorie could have researched religious rites on the internet than have the knowledge whispered into her ear by a demonic entity?
Why don’t any of the women in this story have any form of agency? Ignoring everyone’s neglect of Marjorie’s mental illness, the mother, Sarah, also apparently has no say in what goes on. She makes it clear that she doesn’t want all this exorcism nonsense but John overrules that. Merry herself just gets the double-whammy of being a girl and too young to be listened to.
Lastly, the two final dramatic reveals. I’m trying not to give spoilers here so bear with me. We get hints of a massive tragedy throughout the book but when that tragedy is spelled out for us we still don’t know exactly what happened. Who’s idea was it? Why was it not fully investigated? As to the final pages of the book, what was that all about? Could you go back and look at events differently? Is this actually a supernatural story or is it a condemnation of the patriarchal religious neglect of mental illness?
I enjoyed reading the book and I’m glad I did. I enjoyed all the nods to classic horror fiction. Certain bits of it irritated me (The blog chapters! Why! Poor [real] Karen!) and certain bits left me asking more questions. The ending left me a little disappointed. I could have done without that final twist and still been satiated. There’s only so much convolution I can take before I start wondering what the point of the journey is. That said, I will read the other Tremblay book I have as for the most part I enjoyed the style of writing and there aren’t enough good horror books around these days!