If I made a list of my favorite Gothic horror novels, the top two would definitely be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (you can read those reviews here), Now, I can add a third favorite to that list as I loved A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. Finding a really good and well-crafted horror novel can be a struggle, and I’m happy to report that this one greatly exceeded my expectations! Having an endorsement by Stephen King as a story that scared him definitely helped my confidence that I had chosen the right book, and this one does not disappoint, While I’ve never read anything by Paul Tremblay, I was already aware of his reputation as a horror writer, as his novel Cabin at the End of the World has been adapted into a film. The best short description I can give for Head Full of Ghosts is that it’s a perfect blend of Shirley Jackson with the movie The Exorcist. Tremblay has had a lifelong obsession with horror fiction, and in this book, that love clearly shows. This is a work that will keep readers guessing throughout the entire experience.
A Head Full of Ghosts tells the story of the Barrett family, a suburban middle class family consisting of husband John, wife Sarah, and their two daughters, Marjorie and Merry. It isn’t long into the story before we discover that the family is severely dysfunctional. The parents fight constantly and are quite emotionally abusive to their daughters. The title of the novel refers to Marjorie’s struggles with her mental health. Medication and counseling aren’t helping to improve her condition, so John decides to seek help through the Catholic church. As John decides that religion is the answer to their problems, he’s convinced by the local priest that perhaps Marjorie’s negative behaviors are the result of demonic possession rather than any psychological problems. While the mother is skeptical, she is gradually worn down by her abusive husband who is also a God-fearing man. The involvement of the Catholic Church also helps the family in another way. Due to John being out of work for the past year and the family’s high medical bills, they agree to allow a camera crew into their house to film Marjorie’s “possession” and subsequent exorcism for a reality TV show, appropriately titled The Possession.
The novel takes place fifteen years after The Possession ended, and we discover that the show has taken on a strong cult following. A best-selling writer tracks down the younger sibling Merry, who is now 23 and the only survivor from the events of that time. The majority of the novel is told from Merry’s point-of-view as she remembers the traumatic events she experienced as a child. Interspersed with the flashbacks to the events is the occasional interlude by a horror blogger, who happens to be a massive fan of The Possession TV show, attempting to deconstruct what happened on the show in order to separate fact from fiction.
“I’m interested in finding the story. An accurate account of what happened.”
“Ah, those can be two different things.”
I love how this novel kept me on my toes the entire time. Clearly, there is something wrong with Marjorie, but you’re left guessing throughout if her behaviors are the result of mental illness or demonic possession. Several bizarre occurrences take place around Marjorie, but those incidents can often be explained away. There are so many twists and turns in the narrative that I had no idea what was happening, so there’s this unsettling feeling throughout the narrative. Having the main story narrated from Merry adds to the confusion, as she was only eight years old when these events happened. I should also point out that this novel is an incredible work of metafiction, which we’ve seen with films like Scream and authors such as Gary Hendrix. So there’s a lot of unreliability in the telling of this story, alternating between Merry’s childhood memories, the re-enactment documentary of events, and the horror blogger’s breakdown of the show. While this book doesn’t include anything you wouldn’t have experienced in other works, ranging from The Exorcist to Paranormal Activity, the genius is in how Tremblay tells this story.
The characterization as a whole is superb, particularly the relationship between the sisters. Marjorie does seem like your typical sullen teenager with depression, while Merry is the hyperactive and adoring younger sister. The bond between them is really well explored. Young Merry is very likeable and you also can’t help but feel some empathy for the older version of her who is recounting these tragic events. While I found myself completely hating the parents for their behaviors, they are both fully fleshed characters and you understand the reasoning behind their separate beliefs and actions. The minor characters, consisting of the TV crew and the Priest, Father Wanderly, will be familiar to you if you have watched any of the many paranormal TV shows out there. Of those secondary characters, I liked Ken, a member of the TV crew. He only has a very small role, but his relationship with Merry during the filming of the TV show was a nice additional touch, like their time kicking a soccer ball around outside.
Mention also needs to go to the blogger Karen Brissette; her interludes during the book are one of the absolute highlights. Breaking up Merry’s recollection with Karen’s blog was a fantastic idea by Tremblay, as it gives you a break from the dark retelling of the tragic tale that befell the Barretts with a funny sarcastic aside on the actual The Possession show trying to debunk the myth behind it.
As with any work of Gothic horror, setting is so important that it should serve as a character in its own right. Tremblay does bring the house to life, making it as integral to the story as the family themselves. The New England setting brings some great atmosphere, and as you see the stresses and strains that Marjorie’s condition is having on the family, you find yourself becoming pulled into their story as the relationships between the family members deteriorate.
The book itself is well-written and Tremblay does a great job of mesmerizing you as he weaves his tale, building to the conclusion. You will second guess yourself multiple times during the book. His fast-paced descriptive style of writing does a great job of making you care about both Marjorie and Merry and he also has a skilled hand at amping up the tension throughout, especially during certain moments. This story reminded me of Haunting of Hill House in so many ways, and the twist ending brought in mind another classic Shirley Jackson tale, which I will not say here. The subsequent interview with Tremblay as well as a list of many of his influences will delight fellow horror fans. I’ll be reading Cabin at the End of the World quite soon. If you are wanting a tragic family tale within a work of Gothic horror, then you should definitely read this book.
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I thoroughly enjoyed this review and your points on what makes a great Gothic. I’m also a fan if “Frankenstein” and Shirley Jackson’s writing. One of my favourites is “We have always lived in the Castle”. I will definitely be reading Tremblay’s novel and look forward to enjoying it as much as you did.