Synopsis: A chilling thriller that brilliantly blends domestic drama, psychological suspense, and a touch of modern horror, reminiscent of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
The lives of the Barretts, a normal 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 stop 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. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts’ plight. With John, Marjorie’s father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.
Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface—and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.
One of my favorite horror tropes is the exorcism. The thought of an innocent human being (typically a young child) being invaded and overcome by a malevolent supernatural spirit always makes for riveting books and movies. It just works, no matter the medium. A Head Full of Ghosts is another such story . . . or is it?
What makes this novel unique is the Barrett family being filmed for a reality TV show while their older daughter, Marjorie, battles possession for the world to see. Paul Tremblay does not run from modern technology like some horror authors do, but instead uses it to his advantage to up the scare factor -- which is not an easy thing to do.
The story is told from the POV of the Barretts' younger daughter, Merry -- she is twenty-three in the present day and is recounting the story of her older sister's possession which happened fifteen years before. Merry is an unreliable narrator in the classic sense -- the bulk of what happens in the novel is seen through an eight year old's eyes, so things don't always add up, sometimes leaving the reader in the dark . . . and that's the point. It adds to the unsettled feeling of it all.
I must admit I did have a few problems with the story. The first 50 pages or so really dragged, and I was tempted to put the book aside in favor of something else. The only thing that kept me reading was Stephen King's Twitter claim that this book "scared the hell out of him", and while it didn't do that to me, the ending did leave me feeling a little unnerved. Just a little.
As well as the first few chapters dragging, I didn't feel this book brought anything new to the horror and suspense genres. It has a been-there-done-that feel which isn't helped by almost every iconic horror work from the last forty years being name-checked. Yes, we get that a demonic possession is going to immediately bring to mind The Exorcist. Yes, the disintegrating family is akin to the Torrances from The Shining. Yes, Merry using a video camera and recording candid footage of scary happenings in the house is just like Paranormal Activity. We get it, Tremblay. However, constantly telling and not showing (comparing the events of your book to classic scary works does not mean your book is automatically scary or classic, sorry cholly) is detrimental to the work as a whole, causing it to feel bit like reheated leftovers of the best that the horror field has offered us over the years. That's not to say this book isn't a bad read; I didn't give it four stars for nothing. But it is a problem.
Finally, there's the ending . . . or lack thereof. This book has almost no resolution, and I'm not a fan of that. I don't like everything being spelled out for me, but it's never even made clear if Marjorie was actually possessed or if she was just pretending . . . or if, in fact, the dad was possessed. Or maybe both. Or neither. I get that it's left open for interpretation, but the reader is given almost nothing to work with in the end, and that is frustrating.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. It was pretty chilling in places and last couple of chapters were heartbreaking and unnerving, even if the author didn't do such a hot job wrapping things up. At 280 pages it's a quick, easy read. If you're looking for something new that will remind you of all the works in the horror genre you love (and if you don't mind it not exactly measuring up to most of said works . . .), give it a shot.