Exorcism and possession story fans, have I got one for you this year. Let me introduce you to A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay.
When Merry was a little girl, her older sister was possessed by a demon–and her cash-strapped family made a reality-TV show about it. In the present, Merry is the only surviving member of her family, and she’s agreed to let an author write a book about her. And in a third narrative, there’s a horror blogger discussing the TV show and its impact and background. What really happened to Merry’s sister? And why is Merry the only one who made it out alive?
I’ll go ahead and say I absolutely loved this, especially the construction. I love how Tremblay uses the blog narrative to train you to think in horror references, and then how he uses that to set up the reveal at the end. If you’ve read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (and if you haven’t, do pick it up either before or after you read this one!) you’ll figure it out, but it’s great either way. (Sorry. I guess I just sort of spoiled both books with that, but I enjoyed it anyway, and having some idea of what was going to happen didn’t lessen the emotional impact for me at all.)
A reviewer on Goodreads who didn’t like the book used the phrase “warmed over Shirley Jackson.” I don’t think this is fair. I’d say Tremblay took the chili that Shirley Jackson made and then made tamale pie with it. He didn’t just microwave it and slop it down in front of you. He added and mixed and spiced and topped until, while you can still taste the chili, there’s an entirely new dish. I’d go so far as to say he even made his own topping from scratch, he didn’t use Jiffy mix.
Anyway, you see what I’m getting at. Tremblay pays an homage while making the story his own. And it’s a great story with wonderfully drawn characters, particularly Merry. Horror, like Romance, is a genre where you have to care about the characters, at least a little. The best Horror makes you care, so that the terrifying things that happen and the fight against darkness seems to be happening to you personally. It’s a very visceral experience. Tremblay succeeds in depicting a family in full break-down, and choosing to narrate through Merry’s eight-year-old eyes makes that storyline even sadder, more confusing, and scarier. Is it mental illness, or a demon? Is Merry remembering correctly? How much did she create in order to make sense of her family falling apart?
It’s also jam-packed with frightening sequences, described in atmospheric, chilling detail. Possession stories, like The Exorcist, always make a lot out of how scary a human being behaving in unnatural or unusual ways can be.
All three of the voices ring true, the imagery is genuinely creepy, and the story is an affecting mix of scary and melancholy, with enough jumps and twists and unsettling scenes to keep you on the edge of your seat. A really wonderful blend of horror and psychological suspense, one of the best ones I read this year.
It’s October, the season to be a cheater-cheater-pumpkin-eater! #5 complete, a book published this year. Boom.