*Potential for spoilers. Read at your own risk!
I received a free physical copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.
The lives of the Barretts, a suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia. To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to halt Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show.
Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls the terrifying events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories begin to surface – and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed.
I’ve not ready many so-called “horror” novels. I’m not generally one for horror in general (I once spent a marathon of Paranormal Activity hiding behind a cushion; I could probably make you a cushion I was staring at the stitching so hard!). And yes, some of you will say that Paranormal Activity is not scary or that I am wuss, but yes – I will admit to being easily scared by things! But I was intrigued to read this novel because 1) Stephen King tags this book, and 2) It actually sounded quite interesting!
A Head Full of Ghosts follows the lives of the Barrett family, in particular those of Merry and Marjorie. The novel revolves around the question of whether Marjorie suffers from schizophrenia/mental health, or is possessed by demons and ghosts that filter information to her. Over the course of the book, we see Marjorie begin to deteriorate before her father takes matters into his own hands by consulting with a local Catholic priest, ending up with the family’s life being documented for all to see.
Told from the viewpoint of Merry, we get a more childlike and innocent viewpoint of events taking place. Merry is filled with fear, doubt and confusion as she attempts to understand the truth behind Marjorie’s behaviour. From the offset, Tremblay presents a clear big/little sister relationship: Merry is the younger sister who likes to annoy and gain attention from her older sister, whilst Marjorie tries to set boundaries in her life as she grows older keeping promises to her little sister that she will ultimately break. Merry by far becomes the most developed of the characters and, purely through the fact that the majority of this novel is told from her POV, we can clearly see this development. As events unfold, Merry frequently questions Marjorie about her actions. She feels fear that Marjorie believes her mind is filled with all of these voices telling her stories that she then retells to Merry, leaving Merry feeling very uneasy when in the presence of Marjorie. Throughout the novel, Merry (and the reader) is constantly reassured by Marjorie that this is all just an act and, at times, it is believable. However, Tremblay constantly leaves you guessing regarding the truth of this matter as one event leads to another far worse than the time before.
One way in which Tremblay makes us question this truth is through the blog posts of side-character Karen Brissette. Brissette’s blog posts bring a more light-hearted approach to the novel compared to the more psychologically thrilling episodes told by Merrry. Brissette’s writing is breezy and at ease filled with references to various horror movies, TV shows, and texts as she analyses the episodes of the reality show The Possession. It is these references that leave you second-guessing as Brissette all but tears apart any sense that Marjorie is possessed by demons by comparing scenes and events to these famous forms of horror. As each event takes place, you can clearly see the similarities but something deep inside of me felt like there was something else behind everything that was happening. Even knowing that there were these similarities, I still found my heart pounding in the more eerie scenes and found myself questioning Marjorie and her motives.
Marjorie’s character is one altogether different to that of Merry. Whereas Merry is a bit more shy but also curious, Marjorie is more outspoken and rebellious. Over time you begin to see Marjorie as manipulative in her ways, whether this is the demons, the schizophrenia, or purely her own personality is something that we will never truly know. With each interaction she has with the family, there is a sense that there is something behind every action she puts into place. It literally feels like she is performing. And that is where things become confusing with Marjorie. I found her to be more human when around Merry; possessing more feeling and concern when communicating to Merry what is happening to her. But when around her family and the television crew, the dramatics come into play. She plays up to the cameras because she knows they are there, she knows what they want to see and she performs for the audience watching through the TV screens. That is why there is so much questioning, and why I felt confused at times as to what was happening. I couldn’t tell what was truth and what was fiction. But that’s what I really liked about this novel.
Tremblay really plays on the psychological aspect of this novel, messing with the characters emotions and thus, onto ours. We put ourselves into the place of Merry as the primary narrator and feel innocent in ourselves. We believe that we are there, we are experiencing these events and that is why I enjoyed it. Yeah, it may not have possessed the scares I was expecting (especially given King’s praise!), but it was an altogether different form of scare that I enjoyed.