A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
William Morrow, 2015; 304 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts starts out promisingly when Merry Barrett allows a reporter to interview her in her family’s decaying former home. Fifteen years earlier, Merry’s family had been the subject of a reality television show called The Possession, based around her sister Marjorie’s possible demonic possession. Looking back, Merry recounts her childhood in a Boston home consumed by fear, desperate for religion to solve the problems, and turning to the media as a means to financially support the family because the father has been without a job for some time. All these elements have the potential for an unnerving horror novel, but A Head Full of Ghosts is awash in too many underdeveloped characters, ideas, clichés, plus a post-modern structure that’s too self-consciously pleased with itself.
In Merry’s world, everyone has seen The Exorcist and knows the horror story gimmicks that drive such tales. To be fair, the book does occasionally find some interesting and different ways to approach those ideas. For instance, the flashbacks to Merry’s childhood are interspersed with blog articles she wrote under an assumed name. With the knowledge her family’s tragedy and its depiction on television, she writes snarky posts railing against a television series she claims is bogus, with heightened internet parlance and cynicism to mask her true heartache. It’s an interesting take, but a frustrating contrast when the novel wades through so many familiar beats of exorcisms, religious hysteria, and a family in turmoil. Some of these tropes might have been easier to ignore if the characters felt more real, but people like the put-upon father or the fanatical priest represent just a few personalities that feel carbon-copied from similar books. Chalk such problems up to a limited worldview as the reader mostly learns about these characters through the limited point of view of the protagonist, but even Merry as a child lacks depth or insight to grab the reader’s attention. A Head Full of Ghosts needs a strong voice to drive the narrative and unfortunately it’s not there.
As the book developed, the author’s decision to call attention to familiar horror iconography felt like a lame excuse to distract the reader from tired plotting and cheap social targets. The book also talks about Marjorie’s possible mental illness as an alternative diagnosis for her possession, but A Head Full of Ghosts never explores those ideas in interesting ways, only exploitative.