A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay is a book that I needed to read. I’ve seen it mentioned on my twitter feed for a while, and now I’m kicking myself because I’ve been deprived of one of the best novels that the horror genre has had to offer in years. You really should read this book too. Read on and let me convince you.
The synopsis reads:
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.
I love the way this book cultivates an unstable footing for the reader. Paul Tremblay constructs a deliberately ambiguous narrative around a spin on the classic unreliable narrator in the form of Merry, the youngest sibling of the Barrett family. This instability is further reinforced by the manipulation and self-interest of the secondary cast, along with the Barretts themselves. Everyone in this book has an agenda. The self-interest of the cast draws a fog around the truth of the proceedings making uncertainty a profound reality here. You continuously question the veracity of the information and actions of the characters; this suspicion is further compounded through the lens of Merry’s recollections from childhood. It creates a perpetual motion of distrust, the serpent eating its tail. Nothing is assured and I was continuously swayed for and against previous conclusions I drew early on and throughout. That made for ridiculously compelling reading. This all builds the groundwork for what ends up being a really scary book. No matter where you stand at the end, what happens is frightening.
One of the scariest aspects of this book is the way it establishes the strong and equally plausible possibility for what ails Marjorie to be either supernatural or psychological. This results in an interesting and uniquely personal reading of the novel; different readers will draw different conclusions to the happenings in the book based on what they believe. The reader can and will formulate their own opinions of the book and what happens to the Barrett family. The book can be read with equal success and compulsion whether you consider this to be a tale on the supernatural or a treatment of the harrowing effect of mental illness. I love that. The book seesaws between either possibility based on the information provided throughout.
The parallels between the concept of possession and the course of mental illness and schizophrenia are perilously close. The unpredictability, the danger, and the fear of either condition are real and they play off each other. Tremblay treads this line with incredible success, and if anything, the parallels serve to legitimise the events that take place. It lends a feeling of credibility to the novel that wouldn’t happen with something that was purely supernatural, something that the inner sceptic within us all could easily dismiss as fantasy. The very real presence of mental illness here renders that impossible. It is all so well conceived. The extent, to which either condition resembles the other, external to any secondary manipulation, is horrifying; they become almost indistinguishable. Marjorie’s condition, her treatment and wellbeing, becomes very much like walking across thin cracking ice; any misstep could send her plunging down into the frigid black. Merry and her family are literally helpless; they can do nothing but watch and be tortured by it.
I spent a bit of time after finishing the book trying to think of books that I could list as a similarity and the first and best option I could come up with was Jason Arnopp’s recent and fantastic The Last Days of Jack Sparks. This is one of the only books I’ve read in recent memory that touches upon similar points. If you’ve read Jack Sparks but have yet to read A Head Full of Ghosts, do so – you’ll love it. The other novel that came to mind was House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. All three of these novels deal with the unreliable narrator – shaky, ambiguous and on uncertain ground, while dealing specifically with the breakdown of one’s mental state. All three are also genuinely scary books. A Head Full of Ghosts is not only observational but also connected and involved. It is done in much the same way that House of Leaves provides written leavings of past investigators and their spiraling mental breakdowns and madness, but it extends beyond that – the course of events and the actions immerse the reader as they occured for Merry.
We witness, in Merry, someone revisiting incredible trauma; the worst moments of her life. We watch her reopening the old wounds for the benefit of the audience. It is incredibly dark, frightening and uncertain. The ending left me breathless and disbelieving. I really can’t fault anything in this book. It is an entirely original, captivating and astonishing entry into the horror genre.
This is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read on the supernatural and the best part is that one could argue that it is in no way supernatural at all. I can’t think of another book that has done that for me as a reader. To be so engrossingly crafted and to offer two entirely distinct and successful but also distinguishable readings; the result for you as a reader and the driving force of the narrative, the catalyst for Marjorie’s condition, is entirely related to how you treat with these themes. It is ridiculously well crafted and brutally fascinating. It is tense, mysterious, chilling and frightening. I loved this book and I want more. I’ve reset my to read stack and bumped up Disappearance at Devil’s Rock to the top. I’m not done with you yet Paul Tremblay! (shakes fist at sky).