A Head Full of Ghosts is the new novel by Paul Tremblay. It’s the first time I’ve encountered his writing but on the basis of this novel it won’t be the last. Until Adam Nevill came along, the only book that really scared me was The Exorcist (to say nothing of the film which I’ve watched a grand total of one and a half times, giving up on my second attempt). I can hear the sniggering from younger readers at that statement who – if generalised impressions are to be believed – now regard the movie as a comedy with crap effects. They’re wrong. It’s a classic and anyone not terrified by it has something lacking in their psyche, or doesn’t have a soul.
Given my experience with this classic of demonic possession, (the lights actually flickered at one point when I was reading the book. True story) it was with a little trepidation that I approached this novel, especially after having seen online comments about it, and how scary it is given that it shares that subject matter with William Peter Blatty’s classic.
So, is it as scary as everyone says?
The story concerns the Barretts, a New England family, whose eldest daughter Marjorie begins to display what are apparently signs of demonic possession. With the medical profession unable to provide any help, John – the girl’s increasingly desperate father, contacts the church, convincing them that an exorcism is required to save his daughter. The church agree but the story is further complicated by the family’s decision to have their story televised in a weekly “reality” TV show…
On the face of it then, nothing outstandingly original – just your average, run-of-the-mill young girl possessed by demon kind of thing.
Except no. This is an extremely cleverly constructed piece of writing which takes the central conceit and turns it into what I regard as one of the finest pieces of post-modern writing I’ve seen. Seriously, if anyone is teaching post-modernism as an art form then this book should be on the curriculum.
Fractured narrative? Check. Metafiction? Check. Deconstruction of tropes and themes? Check. Simulacra? Oh yes. The opening chapters of this book are deeply unsettling and scary, making full use of the imagery and trademarks of every demonic possession book/film there have been. Familiar yes, but still scary. And it’s precisely this familiarity that the book plays on, cleverly lulling the reader into accepting them, enjoying them – getting scared by them – and then meticulously pulling them apart, casting doubts as to their veracity, persuading the reader that it’s all a hoax.
The book is written in first person, narrated by Merry, the younger daughter who is telling her story to a writer some fifteen years after the events. Cue unreliable narrator. The ambiguity about what actually happened is added to by the inclusion of blog extracts from “The Last Final Girl” who dissects every episode of the TV show (The Possession) pointing out where and how all the fakery was achieved… The identity of the blogger is revealed about halfway into the book and it’s a masterstroke by the author, forcing the reader to read the extracts in a whole new context.
This is a brilliant book, one of the best I’ve read for some time. It succeeds on very level, emotionally and intellectually. I could ramble on for hours about how clever it is but will restrain myself here for fear of spoilers. Suffice to say, I highly recommend that you should read A Head Full of Ghosts, which you can do by buying it here.
PS No lights flickered during the reading of this book.
A window did fly open by itself though.