Book Review: A Head Full of Ghosts

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A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Edition Read: Second publish cover, September 27th 2016 by Titan Books, 336 pages

Links: Goodreads, Amazon, Wordery, Book Depository

The lives of the Barretts, a suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia. To her parents despair, the doctors are unable to halt Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls the terrifying events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories begin to surface and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed.


 

A Head Full of Ghosts was such an interesting read, and the opposite of what I expected it to be.

The story is mostly narrated by Merry, the youngest sister in a family who became the centre of a media frenzy after a TV show was filmed about her older sister Marjorie, who was supposedly possessed by a demon.

I love how Tremblay managed to get across two very different voices and experiences, that of younger Merry, and older Merry, while also not revealing anything to you. Older Merry gives nothing away in her narration of her childhood. She respects the ignorance she had as a kid, and only reveals things as they were revealed to her, which makes the experience of reading it so much more compelling. And while older Merry retains some of her childlike voice, you can see how much the events pushed her to grow up, even though you don’t know exactly what happened.

The dynamic between the characters are so interesting, but what really drew me in was the relationship between Merry and Marjorie. Reading other reviews, there are so many mixed readings of whether or not Marjorie is actively manipulating Merry, but I didn’t read it like that. Marjorie is going through one of the worst experiences someone can go through, especially at such a young age, and you can still see their love for one another even when Merry is terrified. There’s an emphasis placed on saying things you’ll regret, in the end, and that felt even more real as it was two characters I could relate to [I’m four years older than my sister]. They rely on each other and, towards the end, Merry still trusts her sister. Nothing is clear cut in this novel. 

I think one of the things that threw me most about this novel was that it’s not really a scary horror. A psychological horror, sure; and there’s definitely some horrifying imagery, but I wouldn’t outright say it’s a horror that sets out to scare you. The two girls at the centre of this story are left traumatised by the things they experience because of their age: they are forced to grow up too quickly, and to keep secrets for the sake of family and protecting one another.

Rather than try and recreate so many famous possession stories, Tremblay approaches it in a way that makes you question the realness of the media. He examines the evil of media and its misrepresentation of real events for shock value, at the expense of the lives of actual people.

The women especially in this story have their trust and lives exploited, mostly by men, for the sake of money and enabling men to feel validated. Tremblay sparks a conversation about a lot, actually: gender, religion, mental illness, suicide and self harm, so it’s a very triggering book. He breaks down what’s actually behind so many stories we see and consume without fully recognising how horrifying it is.

Paul Tremblay’s essay at the end was amazing, and probably one of my favourite parts of this. It was all about horror and the distinction between actual horror and things influenced by horror, and how the ending of horror is what makes it part of the genre. He also breaks down names and intertextual references and influences he had, showing how much thought and planning went into this story, which I loved. Seeing the process behind writing can be as interesting as reading the actual thing.

My one issue with this was the mental health representation. I feel like it could have been dealt with more explicitly, and handled better within the plot as it can come cross as being quite demonising at certain points. However, I never felt like Marjorie was written to seem evil or bad because of her mental illness, people just refused to accept it and therefore made her out to be evil. It was almost like Tremblay was exposing a society that does see people suffering from schizophrenia as evil, and demonises them rather than understanding and helping them. Merry is very much influenced by the ideas of those around her, so the way we view Marjorie changes depending on how Merry sees her.

A Head Full of Ghosts is, above all, a psychological horror about the trauma two young girls experience; the bond between those girls, and how it can be exploited; and how mental illness can be twisted and demonised. I highly recommend reading it!


Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

6 thoughts on “Book Review: A Head Full of Ghosts

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