A Head Full of Ghosts
by Paul Tremblay
Cover Artist: Photo: Forest Woodward / Getty Images
Review by Katie Carmien
William Morrow Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780062363237
Date: 02 June 2015 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Everyone knows the story of Marjorie Barrett. When the 14-year-old's schizophrenia began to worsen and the doctors couldn't help, her religious father turned to a Catholic priest for an exorcism, thinking her possessed by a demon. And when a film crew asked to make the exorcism into a reality show, the Barretts, about to default on their mortgage and drowning in debt from the medical bills, accepted.
The harrowing ordeal--including its tragic end--was broadcast on national television as hit reality TV show The Possession, creating an urban legend hailed as proof of the supernatural by some and panned as an exploitative hoax created for ratings by other.
After fifteen years, Merry, Marjorie's little sister and the only surviving Barrett, is ready to give her side of the story to a best-selling novelist. She's going to tell it all--how it started, what it was like. But Merry herself admits that she was only eight. Her memories are mixed up with what the news said, what rumors say, with the urban legends and the ratings-bait distortion created by The Possession. What really happened to Marjorie Barrett?
At its core, Head Full of Ghosts is a story about a story. It's told in two styles--Merry giving interviews to author Rachel Neville, and a horror blog called The Last Final Girl that critically analyzes the reality show as though it were a work of fiction. Marjorie's mental illness, possible possession, exorcism, and death have been picked apart by thousands on thousands of people. Merry's own memories have been compromised by this.
What's the "real" story? Who does it belong to, anyway? Because it's not just Merry's family tragedy, and it hasn't been since the TV cameras showed up. As brilliantly shown by the analytic extracts from The Last Final Girl, it's a story that has been picked over and cut apart and mocked and praised by people the world over. In a way it's public property, but it's also very deeply personal to Merry, and that contrast drives the book beautifully.
The novel is also an exploration of the horror genre's tropes and characters. This is most evident in the excerpts from The Last Final Girl, where the blog's author calls attention to the ways The Possession fits into its genre--use of the second priest as a redshirt (because someone's got to get hurt), the way it paralleled the story of The Exorcist and other horror films, and so on, right down to the very name of the blog. This book is smart that way.
However, sometimes I felt at a distance from the characters, as if the story itself was the protagonist and Merry was just sort of there. We get fascinating insights into her life, such as her massive collection of horror movies that she turns to for solace, or her tendency for bad jokes, but we spent a lot more time with eight-year-old Merry than we do with the Merry telling the story, and the child Merry is…mainly, she's childish and she loves her sister; there's not much else about her to say.
Of the two twists at the end, the one involving Merry's adult life made complete sense; the other was shocking, but seemed to come from out of the blue. There was little lead-up. Similarly, the parents both come off as somewhat flat, though it was refreshing to see a depiction of 'poor'. Marjorie is perhaps the only character who doesn't suffer from this; we don't get a lot of insight when it comes to her, but we're not supposed to, because Merry is the one telling this story, and Merry has never understood her sister.
Overall, Head Full of Ghosts is a creepy, interesting read, great for horror fans.