A Head Full of GhostsA Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A bibliography of my early reading life reads like a list of Stephen King’s greatest hits. I have been a voracious fan of the horror novel, the ghost story, the monster in the closet for so many years that there have been times that I was worried that I needed to read something else. Even recently, I’ve been on a kick where I’ve mostly avoided horror books in an attempt to, as I put it to myself, “read wider.” When I wasn’t doing that, I was expanding from King into as many of the modern horror masters as I could jam into my bookshelf; Straub, Barker, MacDowell (that’s a shoutout to ‘The Elementals’), and even some older stuff like M.R. James, and my personal pet favorite, H.R. Wakefield. ‘Blind Man’s Buff’ in particular might actually be the most masterful haunted house story I’ve ever read.

That said, I thought I was done being afraid. I believed I had evolved to the point in my enjoyment of horror literature that I enjoyed the execution more than the emotional gut punch I remembered but found that I was increasingly incapable of experiencing at the hands of a good horror novel. And I could tell they were good. That is what bothered me. I knew when I had a good horror novel in my hands because I could tell when the twist worked. I could tell when I was supposed to be scared, and I would even feign it. I could tell when they were bad, too. I could tell when the reveal was too vague, or when it was so specific that it took the fun out of it. I could tell when the characters didn’t read right, or when the threat was insufficient. I always knew what I was supposed to be feeling. I also became skeptical of the blurb. You know the one. It is always some permutation of “this book kept me awake at night for a week and gave me nightmares,” etc.

Here’s the thing. I didn’t sleep much last night. What sleep I did get was fitful and plagued with weird dreams. I’m sitting here at work writing this when I am supposed to be, you know, actually working, in an attempt to flush this out of my system. To echo the sentiments of King himself, this book scared the hell out of me. It really did. It scared me, but not in a creepy-don’t-turn-out-the-light-something’s-under-the-bed sort of way. It scared me on a level that I didn’t think a modern horror author could touch. I lay awake this morning around two having finished this book and stared into the darkness totally unafraid of what may be in it. I was afraid of my own mind. I was afraid of my connections to my family. I say those things and yet neither of them are wholly accurate. Maybe I’m not sure what I was afraid of. I was simply afraid, and somehow not being able to pinpoint the source of that fear made it worse.

I’ll talk through it. Maybe that will help. Please be aware of major spoilers after this.

I started the book being afraid of Marjorie. This young girl has obviously had a psychotic break. Viewed through the eyes of her 8-year-old sister, Merry, this begins like a movie about an exorcism. In this phase of the book she is frightening her whole family. She slowly and soundlessly vomits into her dinner plate. She sneaks into Merry’s room at night and steals and rearranges things. She tells her sister horrifying stories. She speaks in voices different than her own. The really heartbreaking thing about all this is Merry and her admiration for her sister. Merry draws pictures of her family in the same way any little girl would, and in those pictures Marjorie is always a warrior princess. Merry sees her as a protector, as someone she looks up to. She wants to play soccer like her big sister. They make up and write down stories together and Merry reads and re-reads them countless times. Her big sister is everything, and when Marjorie starts to unravel, Merry becomes a spiky ball of coping mechanisms. She sets booby traps in her room. She begins avoiding her sister. At one point she bares all to their mother who wastes no time bringing up the specifics to Marjorie’s psychiatrist. This is a stunning betrayal of Merry that blows up in one of the most intense scenes in the book, a confrontation between a not-quite-right Marjorie and her terrified little sister that left me breathless and cut Merry off from the safe-harbor that should have been her mother.

I do not mention the father yet because during this part of the story, he himself is undergoing a break, albeit under the radar. He has always been religious and is painted here as being quick to spring to irrationality. This intensifies. He talks to a priest. He betrays his wife by taking Marjorie to see the priest when they are supposed to be at a session with their psychiatrist. The priest is a disgusting opportunist who obviously decides upon their first meeting that this girl is possessed by a demon. It is the priest’s idea to bring in the film crew so they can all get paid for their effort. The father is gullible, weak, and wounded, but still as culpable in his daughter’s eventual torment as anyone else. It is not the kind of weakness that makes him a victim or someone to be pitied. It is the kind of weakness that makes him a coward and a minion.

In hindsight, the parts of this book can really be looked at as breakpoints in the status quo. The author deftly directs you from villain to villain and it keeps you confused. Well, it kept me confused, anyway.

In part two, the focus shifts. Marjorie, at least when Merry sees her, appears to have gotten things under control. She tells Merry that she is faking. There are no demons, just voices. So, something is wrong with her, but it’s nothing that can’t be managed. Headphones quiet the voices down. There are only a couple of episodes, but they serve to make Marjorie appear more sympathetic. At the same time, we’re dealing with the new additions of the crew of the show coming into and out of the house. The priest, Father Wanderley is there as well. The dad descends into religious mania. The mom, having cowed to the wishes of the the dad in regard to the eventual exorcism is quiet, angry. You can feel her self-loathing in the scenes where the dad attempts to pray with or for Marjorie. Merry, believing that Marjorie is doing this to save the family from financial ruin, decides to exaggerate her stories, make it seem like Marjorie is worse than she is. There’s an episode where Marjorie hides inside Merry’s playhouse in her bedroom at night, but it doesn’t seem right. It feels scripted, planned. Merry gets the whole thing on tape, and Marjorie tells her to take the tape to the crew the next morning.

This is where the politics of exorcism really begins to be the pulse of the story. The dad’s and priest’s insistence that it would be impossible for a girl like Marjorie to know the things that she knows, that she must be inhabited by a demon because a girl like her couldn’t possibly know or do these things feels shockingly disconnected and misogynistic, especially in light of the fact that Marjorie spends an increasing amount of time in her room alone with a laptop and an internet connection. This is evidence that the possession, to these people, is a foregone conclusion. Obviously she is possessed by an evil spirit because our daughters would never say these things, know these things, be so unruly. Marjorie tells Merry that she is possessed, not of a demon but of ideas. It is the ideas, the knowledge that scares them. She tells Merry that it is their father who is sick. Maybe he’s possessed. Something is really wrong with him. He continues to buy in to the idea that they can pray away Marjorie’s problem. The protestors are become more brazen. He is becoming more angry. The doctor chosen by Father Wanderley, Dr. Navidson (an obvious House of Leaves homage, something very fitting in this book) confirms that Marjorie is possessed and so it is time for the exorcism.

The exorcism itself doesn’t look right. Marjorie seems mostly fine, if really stressed out about what’s about to happen. The television crew and the priests dress the room in candles and crucifixes. When they’re done, Marjorie walks in willingly. The room is too cold because the window is open in November. It is painfully obvious that this is done for effect, though the priest briefly insists that it should be cold in the room for the rite. In the end, it is Marjorie who violently reveals the true colors of her captors, not the other way around, and the scene ends in a vicious attack and the feeling that all of this is now too real.

Then there’s part three. If you haven’t read the book yet, I suggest you turn away now. This will ruin it for you.

The real horror does not happen until the cameras turn off. Everyone leaves the family alone in the aftermath. The church abandons the dad who is angry and sues them and the television company. The mom is tired and quiet. Marjorie goes back to listening to her headphones. Merry continues to be unabashedly eight and I love her for it. We find out now why Merry is alone as an adult. They’re all dead. The police report says that her father poisoned them all except Merry and you can believe it because he is obviously not okay. When the emails are revealed, showing correspondence between the dad and a crazy baptist minister ending with “you know what you have to do,” that all but confirms the outcome. That is, until Marjorie calls Merry into her room one evening before dinner. She tells Merry she is afraid. Their father shows all the signs of wanting to kill them all, and she has a plan. Marjorie says she’s found a shrine downstairs. On this shrine she found a bottle of white powder. They’re all in on it. Even mom. They only have one chance.

At this point my head is screaming at Merry. You’re so little and you love your sister, but she is not okay. She is the one you should be afraid of. As Merry pours the powder into the spaghetti sauce (in an amount that Marjorie has told her would only knock their parents out, allowing the kids to escape), I want to physically scream in the dark of my bedroom. At the dinner table, Marjorie laughs as she heaps her plate with spaghetti sauce, making jokes about how Merry doesn’t eat any. This was not part of the plan. Merry watches in silent horror as her entire family dies on the table and she wonders when the powder will wear off, when everyone will wake up.

My heart is broken. This cannot be real. I feel it with Merry as she waits alone in the house for three days. Her adult brain tells her she was in her room when her aunt came over and found her, but in reality, the police found her under the kitchen table hanging onto her mother. There was no shrine. It is unclear where the powder came from. I am sick at my stomach and reeling.

Mr. Tremblay dealt me a mental blow at the end of this book that I was not prepared for and that I, a whole day later, have yet to recover from. I still feel the hollow spot in my chest. In hindsight, I feel like I should have been prepared, but the author is skillful in his attempts at misdirection. If the goal of art is to make you feel something, this book did that and more. I am afraid, in pain, and so sad. Thank you, Mr. Tremblay for showing me that there is still a rug to pull from under my feet, and that I am not done with horror.

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