Another day, another exorcism.
Hello, friends and foes! Today we’re reviewing Paul Tremblay’s 2015 novel A Head Full of Ghosts. And this should come as no surprise. If you’ve been kicking around the blog for a while, you know I love exorcism horror. Movies, books, television – anything about the Devil himself. (You can read my review of Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism here: http://www.littlebookblogofhorrors.com/2021/08/book-review-my-best-friends-exorcism/). Plus, the reviews for this book are killer. “A Head Full of Ghosts scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.” – Stephen King. “… A Head Full of Ghosts generates a haze of an altogether more serious kind: the pleasurable fog of calculated, perfectly balanced ambiguity.” – New York Times Book Review. ‘Ambiguous’ is the perfect word for this book. Confusing, foggy ambiguity. And it’s absolutely amazing.
I’d heard the name Paul Tremblay around the horror literature world for a while before I picked this book up. And, turns out, that was for good reason. He’s won a Bram Stoker Award, British Fantasy Award, and a Massachusetts Book Award. His bibliography boasts seven novels and numerous anthologies, essays, and published short fiction. Fun fact! He has a master’s degree in mathematics. Now there’s a horror story. His first published novel was The Little Sleep in 2009. Right now, his 2018 book The Cabin at the End of the World is all over horror lit social media; it won the 2019 Locus Award for Best Horror Novel. I’d love to see this guy’s trophy case. And, both A Head Full of Ghosts and The Cabin at the End of the World are in film production.
Trigger warning for potential readers: this book is rife with discussion of mental illness and self harm. Now, let’s dive in.
First we meet a grown-up Meredith (who goes by Merry) as she’s being interviewed by a writer in her abandoned childhood home. You know something catastrophic happened there – but you don’t know what. Then, we meet Karen and her pop culture blog. She’s making commentary on a documentary TV show, The Possession, that was made about Merry’s family; particularly her older sister, Marjorie. Finally, we meet eight year old Merry, living through her sister’s… sickness, and the eventual filming of the TV show in real time.
These three intertwining narrators tie the story together as they tell it, each with their own personal anecdotes and additions. I think the addition of the blog-style commentary is one of many things that sets this book apart. To watch the events unfold through the eyes of eight year old Merry, then to be given an unabashed and seemingly impartial recap of the TV show episode recreating those events does an exceptional job of casting doubt upon the narrators – all three of them. And it does my favorite thing when it comes to exorcisms – it debunks them. Well, not entirely. Some things just can’t be explained.
Karen does an exceptional job of addressing the hypocrisy of a monetized exorcism and the exploitation of “possessed” (or mentally ill) persons for capital gain. To get that take smack dab in the middle of a story about the horrors of possession and exorcism is unequivocally self aware. And, in my opinion, necessary.
Marjorie is 14 when she starts acting strangely. She’s withdrawn, moody, and seeing and hearing terrifying things. The bedtime stories she creates with Merry grow increasingly bloody as the visions and voices overwhelm her. Her father jumps to possession before her mother does, but eventually a priest is involved, and then an entire camera and production crew. I mean, how does that happen? How is a young girl tortured and exploited on television? That, reader, is the worst horror of all.
Even the “possessed” Marjorie knows that exorcisms shouldn’t be a spectacle (literally – the Pope said so), and the priest ignores her. Her father ignores her. Everyone ignores her, as men have ignored young women for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And they all pay dearly for it.
You don’t know what to believe between young Merry, grown Merry, and the blog posts. Even Merry admits that it gets fuzzy and embellishments slowly turn to truths, even though she lived through it all herself. It’s a disorienting account that leaves a pit in your stomach as you’re desperately trying to decide what happened, what was real, and why dozens of adults sacrificed a child for greed.
A Head Full of Ghosts is as heartbreaking as it is horrifying. It speaks to the confusion and mystery of mental illness, and the lengths one might go to in order to appear sane – or the opposite. It’s a hate-filled homage to the media’s obsession with exploiting people in need and while they’re at their lowest. A psychological thriller and religious think piece, at times bloody and at others downright gruesome. It’s not the Devil that leaves you scared – it’s the exorcist. The “good guys”. If you ask me, they’re damn near evil.
5/5 stars overall, 4/5 on the scare scale.
Am I biased because I love exorcism stories? Who cares! It’s my blog, and I can do what I want.
Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or, not. Trick-or-treat, after all.
“Home.” Paultremblay, http://www.paultremblay.net/
Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.
All other images are certified public domain.