Review: “Head Full of Ghosts,” Paul Tremblay

Pros: It seems predictable… until it really, really isn’t
Rating: 5 out of 5

Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts: A Novel is a book I’ve repeatedly seen recommended on Book Twitter, and finally I decided I had to know what the big deal was. 23-year-old Meredith “Merry” Barrett meets up with author Rachel Neville in order to describe a certain period of time in her life when she was eight years old. At that time, Merry’s older sister Marjorie seemed to be getting… odd. She eventually graduated to psychiatry visits and some seriously erratic behavior. In the meantime, John, the head of the Barrett family, lost his job and gained religion. He believes that only Father Wanderly can help Marjorie, and takes Marjorie to church instead of the doctor’s office. As the family runs out of both money and ability to cope, in comes something to seemingly save them: some TV folks want to do a reality show about what’s going on in their house. And Wanderly wants to evaluate whether Marjorie needs an exorcism.

It would have been so easy for this story to fall back on ones that have come before. For the first half or so, I wondered if that was how it was going to go. Much of the story is told through 8-year-old Merry’s eyes, and the rest is told from the point of view of a blogger, Karen Brissette, who is analyzing the entire TV show. It would also have been easy for Karen’s material to get boring (I don’t particularly find TV show analysis interesting by default), but it doesn’t. There’s a lot of fascinating insight to be had. For instance, she talks about the inherent misogyny of the Father assuming that intelligence and unusual knowledge on Marjorie’s part necessarily indicated that she was possessed. She also has a manic energy that infuses her posts. I particularly liked the fact that when Marjorie was at her worst, she often seemed most like a sullen teen with severe psychiatric problems, rather than the old-style raving maniac. She even comes out and tells Merry that she’s faking the whole thing so they’ll be able to make enough money to survive by producing the TV show. (Although of course that begs the question of why she started acting so strangely before her father took her to Father Wanderly. Layers upon layers.)

At any rate, this story does not end up feeling like all the others out there. There really are layers upon layers to what happened. Sometimes one possibility seems obvious; sometimes another seems obvious. And then something will hit the reader out of left field and you’ll be left with your jaw on the floor.

I love the characters. Merry talks a mile a minute, even as a grown-up. She also has a somewhat forceful personality. She has a lot of nuance to her, however, which is unusual for the depiction of someone so young. It becomes very easy to understand why her parents are at their breaking points with what is going on. There’s a cameraman who becomes something of a friend to little Merry, even playing soccer with her, but his role isn’t so simple either. Father Wanderly clearly desires to find a way to pin this on possession so he can do an exorcism, and there seems to be some sort of political thing going down as well (filtered through an eight-year-old’s eyes, so it’s a little vague).

The book as a whole broke my head a bit, and even though it’s the next day now I’m still going back and forth a bit on what I believe probably happened (I have reconciled myself to never being sure).

Content note for a little bit of sexual content and gore, but it’s mild.

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