A Head Full of Ghosts

head full of ghosts by Paul Tremblay

A Head Full of Ghosts is a Bram Stoker Award winning novel about an eight-year-old girl named Merry (Meredith), who is struggling to make sense of unsettling changes affecting her older sister Marjorie. The story is divided into three parts, and each section includes one chapter set 15 years in the future where adult Merry is being interviewed about what happened to Marjorie, one chapter from internet blogger and horror fan Karen Brisette who dissects the reality televisions series made about the supposed possession, and the events as they unfold told from the perspective of eight-year-old Merry.

Merry knows something is off with her sister but has hope that things will return to the way they were. Their mother believes Marjorie is mentally ill and struggles to support her daughter’s increasing health expenses as the sole earner in the four-person household. However, their father comes to believe that Marjorie is possessed by a demon or evil entity, and enlists the assistance of their local priest, Father Wanderly, to assess the situation, and get approval to perform an exorcism.

Chaos ensues when a reality television film crew begins documenting Marjorie’s decline.

Likes / Dislikes

I wanted to like this book so much, but the entire time reading it I kept thinking, “Jenna Moreci is right… an adult horror novel should not have a child as the main protagonist.”

Merry is too young to fully understand what’s going on in her home. Her parents withhold information from her, Marjorie manipulates her, the priest fails to provide meaningful guidance, and the film crew exploits her for increased viewing.

I hated when Merry went into the “confessional” (talking head video diary) when no one made (100%) sure she understood what was going on with Marjorie and why the film crew was there. Despite that, I loved when Merry is given a camera and asked to make her own recordings. When she captures a chilling late-night interaction with her older sister, the description is cinematic.

At first, I liked all of the hints and clues sprinkled throughout, but the ambiguous ending failed to definitively connect those threads, and it made me feel like I’d wasted my time reading the book. For example (I don’t think this is a spoiler, but feel free to skip this paragraph), at the end of Part 1, Merry walks in on Marjorie masturbating in their parents bed. At the beginning of the chapter, the reader is told that it is Saturday morning and the entire family is at home. Sarah (mom) went back to bed after giving Merry breakfast, and John (dad) didn’t wander downstairs until after Merry had watched four episodes of “Finding Bigfoot.” Merry thinks her sister is in the bathroom when she walks into her parents bedroom, and instead finds Marjorie. Why is a 14-year-old naked from the waist down in her parents bedroom? There are additional hints at the father being abusive all throughout young Merry’s account, and Marjorie makes reference to Father Wanderly (who John recruited) visiting child pornography websites. Due to the increased dictatorship shown by John throughout, I really expected this hint to pay off in the end.

Despite the blurb including information about the reality show and exorcism, the television crew doesn’t arrive until almost halfway through the book, and (in my opinion) Parts 2 and 3 are both way too short.

I hate that the story tread a middle path instead of clearly stating Marjorie is possessed or mentally ill. Arguments could be made in either direction! There is enough implied to support either case, and the additional lack of emotion from adult Merry at the end of the book is even more frustrating.

Too Much / Not Enough

Too much Karen Brisette. The blog entries dissecting the television series only contribute fourth-wall meta speculation. There are a lot of references to other books, movies, and television shows that have similar scenes as “The Possession” (the reality show filmed in the book), but it doesn’t include much else. The first chapter from Karen Brisette includes history of the parents, the reason for John’s unemployment, and descriptions of their video diaries, and I would have liked to have seen this expanded upon in subsequent chapters. Unfortunately, most of it is crude, indifferent commentary trying to be perceived as witty and analytical.

Not enough analysis from adult Merry (at least, not from the sympathetic lens of hindsight). Eight-year-old Merry’s description is limited to first person / past tense, but occasionally words are used that seem inconsistent for the character. This makes me think these chapters are meant as a past recollection from future Merry, but then no additional insight is shared (such as any of the details she learned in the years since from watching the reality series, reading police reports, etc.).

My room was too far away, at the other end of the yawning chasm of hallway. The bathroom door, which was adjacent to Marjorie’s room, was also shut, but inside the fan was on, running roughly; revving then slowly like a lawn mower about to run out of gas. Marjorie had been spending more and more time in the bathroom, usually with the fan on, sometimes with the sink running water, much to Dad’s consternation. Water wasn’t free, you know.

I doubt that’s something anyone else will complain about. The overall story is thrilling, but inconsistent character voice really bothers me. When I read “chasm”, “consternation”, and speculation about water bills from a child narrator, it disrupted my immersion.

The reader is told that Marjorie is seeing a doctor when enough time has already passed for the expenses and lack of progress to be a strain on the parents. There’s no realization from adult Merry about this ongoing strain; only the emphasis on the differences in the way Marjorie tells stories to her younger sister.

Karen Brisette points out how an adult plays Marjorie and references the exploitive male gaze, but this only confirms that the scene is unnecessary entirely.

The reenactment actress playing Marjorie, Liz Jaffe, was no fourteen years old. She was twenty-three and looked it. Marjorie was still a kid. Miss Jaffe was not. Liz had similar hair. color, skin tone, etc., to Marjorie, but she was obviously more physically … cough … mature. She wore makeup, tight clothing, and in the masturbation scene, no clothing, but oh, she had on a few digitally blurred pixels to protect the poor audience from her nasty lady parts. So, yeah, “the male gaze” [please see Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”] is in full effect in The Possession at both extremes.

I tried to keep the formatting for the above quote as exact as possible… I went back and re-read Karen’s chapters after finishing the book. To me, Karen casts doubt on adult Merry’s account of events. I can’t say why, because that would be a spoiler, but I’m less sympathetic to Merry (to be clear, I have ZERO sympathy for her) after reading Karen’s chapters and the way the book ended.

Rating & Recommendation

I read A Head Full of Ghosts in three days. Not because I was gripped and engaged with it, but because I wanted to get it over with.

I heard at a writing workshop that “horror is taking the mundane and making it macabre or morbid” but reading this felt like the opposite approach. Mental illness and possession are scary subjects (to the people experiencing these things and to their loved ones). So why isn’t this book scary?

I wanted one of the implicating threads to pay off. With the exception of Merry recording her own perspective of events, I didn’t think the story provided anything new when portraying exorcism and / or misunderstood mental health issues. There are already so many movies and books with harmful representations of schizophrenia, depression, teenage girls beginning menstruation, etc… And this is simply another one.

I really do not like that the ending is left up to the reader. It feels like a cop out. There’s a lot of detail included, but these lose threads make the story dissatisfying when the conclusion is reached. Too many questions are left unanswered.

  • Did the film crew interfere in order to increase viewership?
  • Years of re-runs of the show but the police never followed up on Marjorie’s use of a .tor browser?
  • Does Merry believe Marjorie was possessed or mentally ill?

I did not expect to hate this book. I’m unsure if I’ll read more by Paul Tremblay (I’ve learned that a few of his books have endings that are open to interpretation). He has a good writing style, but this story left me frustrated.

If you have struggled with mental health, family / religious expectations, or overbearing parents, this is not the book for you. I like to read these kinds of stories for cathartic revelation, validity, and emotional exploration, but found none of that in here.

Instead, check out the films The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Taking of Deborah Logan, or the Last Exorcism. They all blend mental decline with possession and (in my opinion) tell far better stories.

Rating: 1 out of 5.