‘Ambiguity’ really isn’t a word that gets a lot of use in a positive book review. But, with regard to Paul Tremblay’s excellent novel, “A Head Full of Ghosts”, the lines of intentional ambiguity running throughout this book don’t confuse the reader but rather propels the story and builds an irresistible suspense in this quiet horror novel with a more literary bend.
And there’s the dreaded word ‘literary’. Having the effect on large chunk of readers similar to dumping a fresh wet turd in a punchbowl, causing them to curl their lip, back away, and ignore anything carrying that moniker. Mostly, this is because the term “literary” is closely associated to navel-gazing fiction that is inaccessible, deathly slow, and pretentious (at least in the eyes of certain beholders). I won’t delve deep into the tedious quagmire that is the literary vs. commercial fiction debate, but I’ll say that if you ignore this novel because some folk call it ‘literary’, then you’ve done yourself a disservice. Tremblay’s “A Head Full of Ghosts” is a completely accessible and thoroughly enjoyable book to a broad spectrum of readers, including those who consider themselves exclusive consumers of ‘literary’ or ‘non-literary’ fiction.
In “A Head Full of Ghosts”, 23-year-old Meredith “Merry” Barrett is interviewed by author Rachel Neville, who is writing a book about a period of highly-publicized trauma in Merry’s childhood 15 years ago. At that time, Merry’s older, teenaged sister, Marjorie, began behaving so hideously, erratically, and sometimes threateningly, that to some (including her very religious father) she appeared to be demon possessed. While the mother is extremely skeptical, 8-year-old Merry wrestles with being simultaneously terrified of her sister and desperately wanting her to get better regardless of what is causing her behavior.
The father’s unemployment and the resulting financial problems further complicates the Barrett’s struggle to cope with a daughter who may be demonically possessed or suffering from a profound mental illness. Driven by the father’s religious fervor (and perhaps the need to pull in some hard cash), the Barretts eventually find themselves the troubled stars of a reality TV series called “The Possession”. As the series drives toward a season finale in the form of a Catholic exorcism, stifled family tensions (some relating to Marjorie and some not) explode not just into the open, but often to a drama-hungry viewing public.
Crunch is always hungry. Massive, ruthless, and homeless, he struggles to survive while building a hatred for all around him. He preys on the street’s weakest, while everyone else lies beyond his aimless rage. Until one day he finds a way to punish anyone and everyone. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the way found him … and he has perhaps bitten off more than even he can chew.
In addition to telling a straight-up creepy horror story, “A Head Full of Ghosts” also functions a masterful study in perspective, reality, and truth, where Tremblay skillfully transports the reader back and forth in time through the unreliable viewpoint of Merry Barrett, whose memories are clouded by time, trauma, and the mind’s eye of a pre-teen girl. The book features incredibly intricate structuring yet Tremblay does a masterful job at keeping the plot lines untangled and crystal clear, and propels the book to a very satisfying end.
In the sphere of dark fiction, “A Head Full of Ghosts” provides a more chilling, emotional brand of horror as compared to the more common, visceral, and superficial horror. While, you may not like all the characters in this book, you will connect with almost all of them at some point. You’ll feel something for each of them, and that’s a large part of what makes this book worth reading.
Tremblay’s tone tends to be casual, and sometimes even light and jokey, even when dealing with heavy, ugly events. Depending on the type of reader you may be, this tone might either cause distraction or build the intended mood to an ever higher level. For me, it’s the latter. There’s something unsettling about placing horror and tragedy in lighthearted frame and that makes it all the more intense. Well, at least when Tremblay does it; it’s a tough trick to pull off.
Ultimately, you can call “A Head Full of Ghosts” a horror novel, a thriller, suspense, or even literary (if you want to drive sales down a bit…). Personally, I’m just referring to it as a brilliant book.
And, apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks highly of the novel. The film rights were snapped up in a Hollywood bidding war with Focus Features in the winning slot. I look forward to seeing “A Head Full of Ghosts” on the big screen (assuming it survives development hell).
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