Review: A Head Full of Ghosts (Book)

Author: Paul Tremblay
Publisher: William Morrow
Date Released: June 2, 2015

Review by: Bridget Cannon

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Have you ever finished a book, sat back, re-read the last bit and then just made a vague “huh” sound? It seems to be the only thing to do when unsure of how to feel about the end of a book. That is what I had to do at the end of A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay this morning. I also made a very strong cup of tea, which has not yet helped me to unlock my feelings about the end of the book.

A Head Full of Ghosts came to me very highly recommended. It is on multiple “must read!” lists. It has been lauded as both scary and well written on said lists. A good friend of mine kept me updated on her progress through the book. She had nothing but great things to say about it. I worry that I went into reading A Head Full of Ghosts with the wrong expectations due to too much hype. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t exactly what I read.

I am, in short, conflicted about my opinion after finishing the book. I expected it to be scarier. No, that isn’t correct per say. I expected A Head Full of Ghosts to be more stereotypical. I wanted to be throwing the book away at jump scares. I wanted to be unable to sleep at night as I relived moments from its prose in my darkened room. That SHOULD have happened, given the subject matter and from what I read of reviews.

Now, I am not saying it was a bad book. In fact, the more I allow my brain time to process, the more I decide I really liked A Head Full of Ghosts. Just not for the reasons that others have implied I would enjoy it.

A House Full of Ghosts centers around the events that happened to Merry years ago, when her father decided to allow a camera crew to film their lives as an exorcism is performed on her fourteen-year-old sister, who may or may not actually be a person living with Schizophrenia. It is now fifteen years later and Merry is telling her side. The story is almost a framed story in the sense that we know that Merry makes it out of the whole thing mostly unscathed because she is the main front of information for us. There are however stories within stories. Things that have been referenced in passing first and then are told in detail, weaving a confusing narrative in which the reader becomes trapped. The book starts with Merry beginning to be interviewed by an author who wants to write a book about her experiences. Merry warns us time and again, though, that she is not the most reliable of sources since she was only eight.

I started the book thinking I understood this written journey. Merry is alive. Merry witnessed her sister either become possessed or have a psychotic break. Merry was going to led me through these interviews, because she is grown up now and has no reason to lie, so I can totally trust what she says. I have been conditioned to do that by years of watching and reading horror and this story would result in nothing different.  I will go through reading a scary story about a scary topic. I will cringe through written jump scares. I will make it through the exorcism proper, which will be the climax of the book. There will be resolution that will end with one last scare. The golden rules of horror will be followed. Through it all, Merry will guide me. Always trust the Final Girl*. They will keep you safe. The book also gives us information about the show, the family and the exorcism through a popular horror blog and articles that break up the interviews.

To be honest, these blog entries are some of my favorite parts. First of all, the blog is titled; “The Last Final Girl.” YES. Tremblay gives the reader a horror blog written by a real horror fan. Karen, the name of the blog writer, lives up to what I wanted from her. She shares her love of gothic horror and uses it to help break down the “episodes” of the events that Merry is telling us her version of. She goes through years of horror and exorcism movies to break down the production side of the story. She calls out the tropes, the patriarchy and tools used for exorcism horror. I loved reading her snark;  I could have done with fewer of her comments in parentheses, but that point is moot.

The book was a slow burn for me. Actually, to be completely honest, I was never really scared by the book itself. Unease was probably what I felt the most. Again, I chalk this up to having preconceived notions of what kind of horror I was going to read. I was made nervous. I did have trouble sleeping, but that was mostly because the subject of exorcisms is a scary one for me. I have been made full of pop culture, religious fear and expectations. In retrospect, that was actually a very interesting way to read about an event that was also full of all of the above…or was it? I won’t tell you. I want you to guess the whole time. I want you to be sitting on the edge of your seat wondering which layer is truth or perception. The story goes so much farther than you think. So much deeper than whether or not a fourteen year old girl is possessed. Focus on the danger, because there is real danger in this book.

So yes, I am recommending it. I can tell you that while reading it as a horror nut I felt under satisfied by the lack on my expectations. As a writer and reader, I can tell you that now I am surprised at how well that feeling goes with the book’s theme.

Don’t go in because of the hype, especially from other horror writers. Don’t expect to be scared or not to be scared. I don’t know how you will react to this story. Just read it. Sit back. Re-read the last bit and say, “huh.”

Postscript: It is the day after I wrote this. I did not sleep last night. The last bit of the book did give me a nightmare. I give in. A Head Full of Ghosts is scary.

*A “Final Girl” is the usually female character who makes it to the end of the horror movie or book and is usually the one telling the story.

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