Tales of demonic possession have always been a staple of the horror genre and are exactly the convention that Paul Tremblay interrogates to terrifying effect in his 2015 novel A Head Full of Ghosts.
A Head Full of Ghosts is a multilayered narrative, cutting between several times, places, and narrators, but the core of the story is the slow decline of the Barrett family after their 14-year-old daughter Marjorie suffers a psychotic break and begins behaving as if she is possessed by a host of spirits. The story is narrated primarily by Marjorie’s younger sister Merry, both in the present and from her past perspective when she was only eight years old.
The novel’s tragedy stems from how their father, recently converted to Catholicism after losing his job, comes to believe that his daughter is literally possessed. He decides to allow a reality TV show—The Possession—to film the lead up to Marjorie’s exorcism. We know early on this all ends in tragedy, but the details of what exactly happened unspool over the course of the story.
Tremblay’s novel is intensely metatextual—the character’s are aware of our own host of pop culture possession stories; in fact, the novel includes a series of blog posts analysing The Possession as a cliche and “stereotypical” exorcism story fifteen years after it airs. These references might take a little to get used to, given we’ve been conditioned by horror novels to pretend the characters have never read one, but they form a vital part of a conversation about the genre itself.
Tremblay is upfront about his influences; the lengthy author’s notes on my Kindle version discuss every pop culture reference in the book, as well as his primary reference points: The Exorcist, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Charlotte Gilman’s 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper (which you should read here, if you have the time).
Perhaps the most confronting thing about A Head Full of Ghosts is how it interrogates the fine line between what we think of as possession and what is an outward display of severe mental illness. It’s ambiguous which is the case here, but the predatory nature of involving a reality TV show, as well as everyone making Marjorie’s illness about themselves, shows a far more realistic and unsettling horror than just spinning heads.
A Head Full of Ghosts starts a little slow, and the perspective of an eight-year-old may take a little bit to get used to, but if you pick up this book, stick with it. Tremblay’s novel is a slow boil towards a tragic end, but so much of the horror lies in the journey along the way, not just a climactic jump scare. In many ways, it feels like every possession story in the 20th century has led up to this book.
You’ll feel a hollow pit in your stomach, but at the same time, you won’t want to stop.
“A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay: Scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare” –Stephen King