A Head Full of GhostsA Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
My rating: 5/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

this book is about a fourteen-year-old girl named marjorie, her eight-year-old sister merry, and the events leading up to marjorie’s exorcism. your attention, i have it, yes? this is both a horror novel and a psychological suspense novel, but then it goes the extra step into self-referential metafiction in a way that is natural and not gimmicky-annoying, probably because that part involves a delightful character named karen brissette. on the one hand, this rests firmly in the canon of possession lit, and all the expectations are met: the voices, the vomit, the levitation, the inappropriate sexual acts, but there’s a cheekiness to it at all times – a little wink as it slightly adjusts these elements so that they are present, but slightly “off.” this isn’t played for horror, more for unease and a sort of evaluation of the possession genre itself.

the book is mostly told through the eyes of merry – now twenty-three years old – meeting with a woman who is writing a book about marjorie and the family’s experiences. it cuts between merry-now and merry’s immersive recollections of the events that destroyed her family. when marjorie began acting erratically, her parents sent her to a psychiatrist and she was put on medication. when her condition worsened, and events more sinister and inexplicable occurred, her unemployed father turned to the church in desperation. under the direction of the inscrutable father wanderly, an exorcism was prescribed and somehow the whole thing became a media event and was filmed for television as a reality show. since we are relying on the memory of an eight-year-old who was kept out of the planning stages, the how of this is unclear but it doesn’t come across as implausible or silly, the way it does in what i just wrote. the family was struggling financially, and this helped them out of a tight spot. desperate people do desperate things, things they might later regret. so their house is overrun by camera crews, marjorie continues to creep through the hallways, and merry tries not to get lost in all of it, whatever “it” is.

essentially, it boils down to what all exorcism scenarios are beneath their shrieking theatrics: what is “really” happening – is it madness? is it actually demonic possession? is it the cry for help of an abused child? this is a novel concerned more with perception/perspective than with truth. there are no easy answers here, and you can draw your own conclusions: the supernatural explanation is just as plausible as the psychological, but no matter which way you lean at the end, there are prickly stickers that will make you doubt your choice.

but tremblay adds another layer on top of this familiar storyline with the reality show element, and in life’s delicious synchronicity my reading of the book coincided with my starting to watch black mirror, so all the themes of suffering-as-entertainment and the complicity of the viewer in demanding and therefore perpetuating another person’s humiliation is fresh in my mind. two things right off the bat – he doesn’t fall into the ready trap of either satire or preachiness. this is not wry chuckling at reality teevee and the ethical ramifications are put forth in very natural ways by characters who would indeed question these things, so it doesn’t feel like reader-directed “shame on you” (which makes it better than black mirror, but i’ve only seen two episodes)

and now let’s get to the best part of the book: MEEEEEE!!!

the karen brissette character writes a horror blog which is running a 15-year-anniversary feature on the show. it’s not ME-me, but it’s clearly written by someone who has read a review or two of mine. while i would never use the word “funky” or ever say anything in r’lyehian, there is a very familiar enthusiasm and a chatty, distracted voice that both delighted me and made me squirm a little when i was reading it in my head, in my voice. i’m a little alarmed that i am so easy to parody/spoof. it actually reads like a mash-up of me and pms, where the thinky parts sound like her and the puppy-energy parts sound like me. and i so cringed when “karen” dropped that das unheimliche thing because YES, that is something i have done WHEN APPROPRIATE but i did feel a miniature shame for it to be pointed out.

and except for the ugly capital letters sprinkled throughout her blog posts, there’s something uncanny (DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE? <—- also something the book reminds me that i do. stalk much, tremblay?) about the voice:

And we the viewers watch from this eerily liminal vantage point. I mean, we’re there with them but not really there. We watch from the spaces between their spaces, and that’s always where the monster dwells. Dwells, I say!!!

SCARRRRYYYY! I mean, damn, so here we are in the opening minutes of the final episode and we discover that we actually know jack and shit about the house’s layout and ARRGGGH, OUR HEADSSSS ARE EXPLODINGGGGG!

so, yeah. it’s pretty sweet.

“karen’s” role is to place the reality show’s situation in a historical and pop cultural context and draw our attention to what the show (and by extension, the book itself) owes to its predecessors. she brings up salem, The Exorcist, House of Leaves, The Haunting of Hill House; all of those literary and filmic touchpoints and she analyzes what it is we find so compelling about these kinds of narratives.

because our fascination with this shit isn’t new. the salem witch trials were a precursor of reality teevee – young girls playing for cameras that hadn’t yet been invented, spectators shivering with shock and can’t-look-away revulsion as fornication with demons was described in little-girl lisps. and there’s plenty to say (and karen does) about the misogyny inherent in exorcism-narratives as white men hover over virginal girls writhing on a bed spluttering obscenities and there is such glee in her deconstruction of the show – it’s a really fun sort of lit crit that i anxiously hope is something has some basis in the efforts of her namesake.

it’s not often that you get critical commentary of a book in a book as it is happening. but it’s a neat little trick. there are so many opportunities to call out the references – the sunroom with its yellow wallpaper inspires a discussion of gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper; not in a “look how clever i am being” way, but in an almost exhausted way, in the same manner marjorie recites the steps of the exorcism or the details of her possession. we’ve seen this. we know how this goes. we are steeped in references, influenced by pop culture, there’s a precedent in everything we do, but the calling attention to it ironically renders it novel and strange.

the idea of audience is very important here. not just the audience of the show, or the fact that watching the show turns merry into an audience of her own life’s experiences, but the fact that marjorie’s symptoms intensify when merry is in the room, the way people being filmed amplify their behaviors for the benefit of the imagined viewers, the way the presence of cameras can stifle natural behavior and can modify a dynamic as a subtle power play.

there’s also some commentary on how media manipulates our memories, but also how we manipulate them all on our own. in one of my favorite quiet scenes, grown-merry is sitting with rachel, the writer, going over some of the key moments in merry’s past:

Sitting here in the coffee shop with her outlining her research findings, I’m getting the sense that she’s hiding something from me. I don’t know how that would be possible.

She wasn’t there when it happened. And I was.

but memories are not always the truest truths. merry was young, shielded from parts of her family’s life, fuzzy on the details, confused over what she saw, and it’s just a nice moment that highlights that distance we all have from our own past, and how we interpret our memories in frequently incorrect ways.

there are lots of fantastic little details here – how merry never got over her childish need for attention/affection and the way she behaved around the crew as an eight-year-old; pleasing the reporters, playing for the camera is mirrored in her relationship with rachel as a grown woman. she’s fragile, arrested, vulnerable, and with good cause.

it’s a surprisingly meaty book – much more than a typical horror novel but one that will nonetheless satisfy the discerning horror fan. plus – a version of meeeeeee!! which is something stephen king has yet to do, to his detriment.


paul tremblay interviews me, or “me” here:…



i would like to play myself in this movie, please!!!


paul tremblay is a clever man.

this book features a character named karen brissette who says writes things like:

I promise I’ll get to the fun gory horror stuff eventually, but you have to indulge me first… BECAUSE KAREN SAYS SO!!!

i mean, that karen’s slavishness to the capital “i” aside, there’s no way i can give this fewer than five stars cats, is there?

clever, clever man…

read my reviews on goodreads

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