How do we help people who seem beyond help? Psychiatry takes time and medication is inconsistent. When one’s child is suffering from night terrors, disturbed behavior, and an inability to tell reality from illusion, it might be tempting for a certain kind of parent to look to an older cure: exorcism. The question of a cure is the crux of Paul Tremblay’s exquisitely disturbing novel, A Head Full of Ghosts. Tremblay adds a twist, to make the knife dig deeper. In true American fashion, the parents of the troubled Marjorie Barrett decide to turn their daughter’s exorcism into a reality show.
This novel is told in layers, all centered on Merry Barrett, Marjorie’s younger sister. Fifteen years after the airing of The Possession, the reality show, Merry meets with a writer to finally tell everything she knows about what happened before, during, and after the show—secrets she’s never revealed before. Meanwhile, a pseudonymous blogger (later revealed to be Merry herself) writes an episode-by-episode exploration of the series. Lastly, Merry takes us back to when she was eight years old and caught in a terrible tangle woven by Marjorie and the adults around her. Although this is a book about the revelation of secrets, A Head Full of Ghosts is slow to give up those secrets. It doles out its twists and turns at just the right time, just when the tension needs to be ratcheted up another notch.
Poor Merry. I felt for this girl. All she wanted as an eight-year-old was for her older sister to love her and for her family to pay attention to her. Her mother, Sarah, however, is wrapped up in Marjorie’s treatment for a mostly unnamed psychiatric disorder: it’s hinted that Marjorie has juvenile onset schizophrenia. Her father, John, has lost hope of getting a new job, after being laid off from his job of nineteen years. John seems to have found comfort in Catholicism and Father Wanderly. When Marjorie fails to make progress, John begins to push Sarah to agree to an exorcism. Merry, meanwhile, has no idea that all of this is going on. She just knows that her sister is getting scary and that her parents are increasingly preoccupied. When the film crew and Father Wanderly arrive to set up for The Possession and the exorcism, Merry’s world is turned on its head. But while she doesn’t know what the adults are doing, Marjorie takes Merry into her confidence. Because Majorie is such an unreliable character, it’s hard to know what to trust and what to see as mental illness.
I was fascinated by the push and pull between Merry’s parents. The reality show uses creative editing to try and show the increasingly unhinged John Barrett as a hero. The show wanted viewers to believe that Marjorie really was possessed and that they were witnessing a grand battle between good and evil. I was firmly on Sarah’s side and felt horrified at what John and Wanderly were going to do. And yet, Marjorie was not improving. She was a danger to herself and to others. We are given a lot of “evidence” to help the us decide what was going on. It was so interesting to me to see how John and Father Wanderly consistently interpret everything Marjorie says and does as proof that she is possessed. We know more than they do—and we’re primed to be skeptical—which makes what happens even more horrifying.
A Head Full of Ghosts comes with a lot of hype. The paperback I read has a blurb from Stephen King at the top of the front cover, saying that it “scared the living hell” out of him. It appears on a lot of lists of scary books as a recommendation—which is where I found this book while I was looking for my Halloween read. All that hype led me to expect a typical, but well-written, horror novel. I thought I was going to get a story about a teenaged girl who might be suffering from schizophrenia or who might be possessed. What I got was a book that twisted and turned, before presenting me with a moment of true horror, one that was distressingly human instead of supernatural. The ending of this book hit me hard, but I kind of wish that I had gone in with no expectations. It would have hit me harder. My expectations aren’t going to stop me from recommending this book to other readers looking for a scary read. I’m just going to hand this book out and only say, “Read this. It will scare the living hell out of you.”