Since it was released in 2015, Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts has been collecting rave reviews, including the seal of approval from the horror master himself, Stephen King.
After learning that Tremblay is also a fellow schoolteacher, I pretty much had to pick this one up.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
The story is told from the perspective of Merry, a woman whose childhood was marred by a tragic and highly publicized incident that people still debate today. Through an interview with another author, Merry recalls when she was eight years old and her family began to fall apart.
Back then, things were already tense in the Barrett household due to their father’s unemployment. It became even worse when her older sister, Marjorie, began displaying bizarre and potentially violent behaviors. Treatments for possible schizophrenia or other forms of psychosis proved to be both expensive and futile.
At a loss for what to do, Mr. Barrett decides to ask a priest for help. After deciding that Majorie needs an exorcism, he also convinces the Barretts to follow the time honored American tradition of allowing a production crew to film them for a reality show.
As you might imagine, things don’t go very well.
Like me, most of you probably think you’ve got this book mapped out before opening the cover: Girl seems like she’s possessed, reality TV crew comes in, girl is ‘proven,’ to be suffering from mental illness, then (PLOT TWIST) it turns out she was actually possessed the whole time.
Well, I’m happy to report that Tremblay wrote A Head Full of Ghosts with absolutely no intention of following this tired and predictable formula.
For starters, watching everything from the eyes of an 8-year-old girl makes the story even more terrifying—and not just the spooky stuff. Poor Merry is witness to the crumbling of her own family, both through Marjorie’s deterioration and a reality TV show invading their home.
She’s not the most reliable of narrators, but she’s perhaps the most honest. While everyone else struggles to rationalize what’s happening, Merry simply observes and reacts. When you’re that young, it doesn’t matter why your previously kind and loving sister appears to be turning into someone (or something) else—it’s just plain horrifying.
Now I know what some of you are thinking: “Oh great, another one of those ‘scary’ stories that starts off with a supernatural element before eschewing it completely.”
That’s not at all what you’ll find in this one. Tremblay keeps you constantly guessing (and second guessing) what you think about Marjorie’s condition, scaring the hell out of you all along the way. Meanwhile, he deftly winds the main narrative before finally letting go with a jaw-dropping conclusion.
Tremblay also frames A Head Full of Ghosts in a world that is fully of aware of horror media and its many tropes. They are acknowledged, mocked, and occasionally/surprisingly utilized in ways that make the story even better.
What Doesn’t Work
Uh…you may never want to eat spaghetti again.
Is it Good?
In addition to my lavish praise for the book’s plot, Tremblay’s writing has an easy and comfortable flow that very few authors can ever achieve. This helps to quickly establish the Barrett family as characters we truly care about, making their descent into heartache and madness even more horrifying to behold.
I once made the mistake of reading A Head Full of Ghosts in a dark room alone (and after eating spaghetti). As long as you don’t do those things, then you’re in for one of the best reading experiences you could ask for.
Fill your head with it as soon as possible.