Book: A Head Full of Ghosts
Author: Paul Tremblay
Type of Book: Fiction, horror
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s not wholly odd, but it’s a horror novel that fits in neatly with my Halloween 2017 plans.
Availability: Published by Harper Collins in 2015, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Limiting my word count discussing this novel is going to be difficult because this book lends itself well to many different avenues of analysis: blog culture, reality television shows and the exploitation that often goes along with them, the impact of a faltering economy on the American family, how toxic families create children who are far more in tune to their environment than we give them credit for, and how religion, when espoused disingenuously, can make any terrible situation so much worse. This book was absorbing and tight up until the last 20 pages or so – I really dislike the ending, though I am not entirely sure why – and I plowed through it in two sittings. It was a book I didn’t want to put down until I reached the end. It’s been a while since a mainstream horror novel made me want to sit up all night and keep reading.
Here’s a quick synopsis: The Barrett family is experiencing a perfect storm. John, the father, lost his working class but well-paying job and cannot find another. His unemployment has run out and they are about to lose everything because Sarah, the mother, works as a bank teller and cannot support a family of four on her salary. Eight-year-old Meredith, known mainly as Merry, is a sensitive and intelligent child and she’s the conduit through which we see the collapse of the Barrett family. Her older sister, fourteen-year-old Marjorie, is showing signs of schizophrenia and psychiatry does not seem to be helping. Her behavior becomes more and more unhinged and her father turns to a Catholic priest, Father Wanderly, for guidance. The priest convinces John that perhaps Marjorie is possessed by some sort of demon and just happens to have a contact with a reality television show that wants to film the Barrett family during the lead-up to an exorcism. I’m going to be careful here because it is so easy to give up spoilers but it won’t spoil too much to state that the decisions the adults make in this book destroy the family and, even though I hate the ending, I don’t know how else it could have ended. Perhaps I hate the ending because Marjorie and Merry deserved so much better, which is probably the entire point of this book. Merry’s story is told through her perspective as an adult and through the prose of an interviewer who is writing a book about the Barretts and the TV show that followed them. There is also very interesting information about the show in a blog written by a very informed but terribly twee writer whose well-versed entries add a lot to the story when I wasn’t cringing at her style.
Discussing the blog author opens the door to my two main, grounded criticisms in this book, so let’s get them out of the way so I can discuss the meat of the story. The blogger employs a very kitschy style of writing throughout her blog entries and I cringe as I wonder if my own writing is that cutesy, affected and predictable (anyone who follows a reference to zombies with “mmm braaaiiins” or some such similar deserves our derision). I hope it isn’t but it’s hard to judge because I can’t even control my word count, let alone my conversational and perhaps irritating tone. But the blogger’s style was a problem because her perspective is very important to the novel and I almost skipped over the blog entries entirely, though I should mention I was a bit heartened by the blog lengths. Yes, it’s a fictional blogger but still. Also irritating were the in-joke character names. Tremblay gave his characters the names of fellow writers and borrowed a name from House of Leaves and I just find that hackneyed. The House of Leaves name-borrowing especially is getting old – I’m losing track of how many novels have characters named Navidson or Zampanò. Stop it.
Now to discuss the many upsides of this novel.
Creating realistic child characters is hard. Very hard. Tremblay nails Merry so well that I felt my stomach tighten when I knew she was in distress or in some sort of danger, as if this was a non-fiction recount of an actual child’s life. Merry and Marjorie had a very close relationship in spite of their age difference and Merry’s reactions to her family’s disintegration – anger and fear towards Marjorie, feeling abandoned by her mother who had too much too do and too little money to do it with, and wanting to be the clown for her father and the film crew – were a perfect enactment of how a real child would behave. Merry knew it wasn’t her fault, all that was happening, yet in the way of all children, she secretly blamed herself for so much that occurred.
Marjorie would help Merry rewrite stories in her Richard Scarry books and together the two wove interesting new tales using the book’s characters. But when Marjorie began to show signs of severe mental illness, the stories began to take a dark turn, with one story notably featuring a father doing malignant things to his family, ultimately killing his two daughters. This story is almost a Macguffin, in a way, because it makes it unclear how much Meredith understood about her father and it causes the reader to wonder how much Marjorie, herself a perceptive and intelligent teen, understood about her father and his motivations. It causes the reader to question what it is we think we know about John Barrett and what it is that Tremblay wants us to take away from how Marjorie’s illness manifests.
If this sounds a bit stilted, it’s because I am doing my level best not to spoil any plot elements or parts of the book that will spur the reader on to make his or her own conclusions. I myself came away with a very sinister view of the relationship Marjorie and John may have had, though even that is not a solid statement because part of the ambiguity in this book is that we do not know exactly what is wrong with Marjorie, though we can safely say she is not genuinely possessed, or at least that is the conclusion I drew.
Part of the problem is that Tremblay shows us how clever and resourceful Marjorie is. She’s a child of the Internet age and can piece together narratives the dense adults around her think are impossible for her to know, as if it would have been unthinkable for a fourteen-year-old girl to find out details about exorcism rituals online. No, the priests think it has to be a demon responding because their need to believe in their version of the story – it is totally a demon wrecking this girl and not her crumbling family and mental illness – and any other explanation has to be discarded. Marjorie’s mother Sarah is the only one who understands how capable her eldest daughter is, that she could very easily know all the things the priests and her husband seem to think are too arcane to be found with little effort. It’s a neat little inversion, that Sarah never becomes the hysterical mother clinging to traditionally feminine ideas of male-led intercession and salvation. She and her two daughters stand in opposition to the men who think so little of the intellect of a teen girl, who think ancient rituals will work better than medications to calm Marjorie. Sarah sees the exploitation of both of her daughters by her husband and the church and is unable to stop it but remains a thorn in their sides and helps her daughter make it out the other side of the ridiculous exorcism.
But then the reader is faced with a question: if Marjorie could easily research facts about exorcisms, if she could incorporate elements of demon-possession films into her own expression of possession, then she could also research schizophrenia and execute a reasonable impersonation of a person with the condition. If she was performing mental illness, what would make her want to do such a thing? I do not know how much of Marjorie’s behavior was genuine illness and how much was calculated reaction to her father. And that inability to know for sure is one of the reasons this book is so compelling.
All of this is just icing on the cake because the reason this novel works so well is because of Merry. Tremblay, as I said already, wrote such an excellent child character in Merry. Her love and trust in her sister becomes more and more eroded as the book goes on. We shift from Merry and Marjorie creating fun stories, to Marjorie creating stories that scared Merry, to watching in clenched-fist tension as Marjorie crept through the house at night, messing with her sister’s possessions, leaving her alarming notes, chipping away at her sense of safety. Merry responds like any child would – she loves her sister and it takes a while for the fear to set in but when it does she avoids Marjorie while feeling guilty.
Merry is a girl with unusual interests – she loves reality show programs about Bigfoot. She prefers to make her own stories to write alongside the stories printed in her books. Her imagination, however, isn’t quite ready to accept what is happening with Marjorie. It’s hard for her to move from adoring her older sister to feeling afraid of her to becoming tired of the whole situation. The reality show seems like a perfect idea to young Merry, who relishes the idea of being a TV star. She likes the money the show brings in because suddenly her family has enough money to stock their basement larder with snacks, to have milk with cereal again, to eat something other than spaghetti for supper. She has no idea how bad things would get for the family after they made their Faustian bargain to televise Marjorie’s illness or possession to millions of people. One presumed the adults would have known but the ill-effects seemed to take them by surprise, too.
The crew of the show that invades the Barrett home are surprisingly tender towards Merry, concerned about her well-being, playing with her when things get tense, hoping against hope that her parents will wise up and exclude her from the filming but filming her anyway (though limiting her screen time) because the little sister is an important part of the story. But at no time does Tremblay let us forget that Merry is a little girl who is experiencing things that would mess up even the most hardened adult.
Take this upsetting scene. This happens after Marjorie suffers from a violent, screaming outburst in the middle of the night. Sarah retreats into Merry’s bedroom to calm her and sleep with her once the spell is over. Merry knows that Marjorie has been creeping into her room at night – Marjorie taunted her by telling her she would come into the room at night and pinch her nose closed. Merry wakes from sleep, her mother still in the room, and she sees a picture of two cats her sister had drawn and left for her in a window of a cardboard playhouse in Merry’s room:
I got out of the bed quietly and didn’t wake Mom. I plucked the picture out of the window. Written on the bottom was the following:
There’s nothing wrong with me, Merry. Only my bones want to grow through my skin like the growing things and pierce the world.
The growing things refer to a story Marjorie had told wherein vines grew out of control and choked and crushed everything in their path, killing the world as they bloomed. This is terrifying stuff for a little girl – Merry has just had proof that even her mother sleeping in her room would not save her from Marjorie’s creepy crawls in the middle of the night.
Yet Merry didn’t become as afraid as I would have, not immediately. She sits outside her cardboard house and looks around, seeing if maybe her sister was going to fall down from the ceiling and bite her or otherwise attack her. But she calms herself. Then it gets weirder:
I told myself that maybe in the morning I would hang up the sister-cats inside the cardboard house. I folded the picture and put it in the top drawer of my bureau, next to the other note that Marjorie had written me. When I took my hand out of the drawer I noticed there was a green leaf with a curlicue stem carefully etched on the back of my hand.
Not only did her sister creep in and leave the note under their mother’s sleeping nose, but she was able to draw on Merry’s hand without waking her. This is such a violation; Merry is safe no where in the house and not even her parents can protect her if Marjorie wants to hurt her. And this scene should provoke all kinds of questions. Was Marjorie foretelling that the vines that were choking her would come for her sister, too? Or was she showing how easy it is to cause harm in the night without a mother noticing, perhaps warning her sister of other vines that might creep into her room? Hard to say but I have my opinion.
But then again my opinion wavers because I sense I may be dismissing Marjorie the same way her father and the priests did. Marjorie may well be the direct force of danger. She may well be warning Merry that she is the one who is dangerous, foreshadowing the roiling insanity that could trigger violence while she has enough of her senses to control herself to the degree she manages.
I want to share the next passage just because it is such a good look into Merry’s mind as terrible things were happening and because it is an example of the sort of creepy, symbolic writing Tremblay pulled off. The Barrett family is gathered at the dining room table and Merry asks Marjorie if she can please wear a sparkly baseball cap of Marjorie’s to school the next day.
Now I remember thinking that her answer could change everything back to the way it was; Dad could find a job and stop praying all the time and Mom could be happy and call Marjorie shellfish again and show us funny videos she found on YouTube, and we all could eat more than just spaghetti at dinner and, most important, Marjorie could be normal again. Everything would be okay if Marjorie would only say yes to me wearing the sparkly sequined baseball hat, the one she’d made in art class a few years ago.
The magical thinking of children and the recently bereaved is at play in Merry’s thinking here, and it’s heartbreaking, the way kids do this, imbuing trivial situations with the power of solving life’s problems. And the implicit end to this request is that if Marjorie denies her the hat then her inability to get her sister to say yes is what will sink the family. Kids feel responsible for every goddamned thing their parents do wrong, for every family failure, and I wish more parents understood this and stood guard against it. But back to the scene:
The longer we watched Marjorie and waited for her response, the more the temperature in the room dropped and I knew that nothing would ever be the same again.
She stopped twisting her spaghetti around her fingers. She opened her mouth, and vomit slowly oozed out onto her spaghetti plate.
Mom: “Honey, are you okay?” She jumped out of her seat and went over to Marjorie, stood behind her, and held her hair up.
Interesting how this played out. Dad called to Christ, Mom got up to comfort the daughter.
Marjorie didn’t react to either parent, and she didn’t make any sounds. She wasn’t retching or convulsing involuntarily like one normally does when throwing up. It just poured out of her as though her mouth was an opened faucet. The vomit was as green as spring grass, and the masticated pasta looked weirdly dry, with a consistency of mashed-up dog food.
She watched Dad the whole time as the vomit filled her plate, some of it slopping over the edges and onto the table. When she finished she wiped her mouth on her sleeve. “No, Merry. You can’t wear my hat.” She didn’t sound like herself. Her voice was lower, adult, and growly. “You might get something on it. I don’t want you to mess it up.” She laughed.
Marjorie coughed and vomited more onto her too-full plate. “You can’t wear the hat because you’re going to die someday.” She found a new voice, this one treacly baby-talk. “I don’t want dead things wearing my very special hat.”
This scene was hard for me to read – the green vomit that is clearly a pea-soup call-back to Regan in The Exorcist, the numb and listless vomit just oozing from her sister almost like rot from a corpse, Marjorie’s refusal to interact with anyone but Merry, while staring at her father. While this is the story of an American family faced with American problems this is also very much the story of how these two sisters navigated the toxicity the adults in their lives rained down upon them.
And as I said, I don’t like the ending, but I don’t know how else the novel could have ended. Perhaps that is why I hate it – perhaps the ending was so perfect while being so heartbreaking that I was meant to hate it.
All in all, this is a very good novel. Though it can be classified as a horror novel, people who are not fans of genre fiction may still find a lot to like in this tightly plotted book with excellent characterization and enough ambiguity that it forces them to read carefully and make their own decisions about what really happened in this novel. Highly recommended.