A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

head full of ghostsAt the age of fourteen, Marjorie Barrett undergoes a harrowing descent into acute mental illness, witnessed with horror and confusion by her eight-year-old sister Meredith, with whom she is extremely close.  While Marjorie’s mother believes that her daughter’s problems are ultimately psychological in nature and therefore medically treatable, her father – who has increasingly turned to religion to make sense of the world after being laid off from his long-time job – becomes convinced Marjorie is possessed by a demonic entity and enlists the aid of a priest, Father Wanderly.  The involvement of the priest, coupled with the possibility of a real-life exorcism being performed on an American teenager, excites the predatory interest of the producers of a reality TV program.  While being the subjects of a TV show helps the Barretts out financially, the constant presence of the camera crew exacerbates the friction and discord already present in the family.  The resulting TV show, entitled “The Possession”, lasts just six episodes before being cancelled due to a tragedy which occurs during the performance of the exorcism, but the end of the show doesn’t spell the end of the horror for the Barrett family.  Thirteen years later, a now twenty-three-year-old Meredith Barrett agrees to meet with an established writer and tell the truth about what really happened to her family before, during, and after “The Possession”.

In A Head Full of Ghosts, author Paul Tremblay is less concerned with possession as a possibly real supernatural event than he is with the idea that we can never “possess” the truth about our pasts and ourselves free from the influence of the ready-made cultural narratives that surround us.  The scripted aspect of supposedly spontaneous reality TV lends itself as a metaphor quite easily, but Tremblay also dramatizes the notion of possession-by-prior-spirits in the body of the text itself.  References to earlier books and films make frequent “ghost” appearances in the novel, and the author uses the literary device of an internet blog in certain chapters to introduce the figure of a close reader who will notice and point out these subtle allusions in case an ordinary reader were to miss them.  As the overtures to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Vladimir Nabokov’s deception-fueled Despair, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (among others) in these sections attest, it is the reliability of the narrator and the truth of the tales being told that are ultimately at stake here.  A twist at the end of the novel, a veritable “turn of the screw”, casts even more doubt on the veracity of the events that Meredith, our guide, has been relating to us.

Be warned – there are some genuinely creepy moments in the story, but Tremblay is careful to maintain a steady amount of ambiguity, leaving the reader to decide how to interpret the information presented by the narrator.  Tremblay’s exploration of the subjectivity of truth is a particular strength of the book, but readers are free to enjoy it on any of its multiple, unsettling levels.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy

house-of-echoesAfter the major success of his first novel, Ben Tierney’s publisher expects great things from his new book-in-process; unfortunately, it is a stalled venture.  This is bad news, as Ben’s wife Caroline has just lost her high-profile job and they’ve got two young boys – and New York City isn’t cheap.

Ben inherits property in rural upstate New York, and while they are there inspecting things he and Caroline decide to buy a huge decrepit country house with the intent of turning it into an inn.  The price is right, and they also figure it will be a fresh start for their older son Charlie, who has been traumatized by events at his school.

The Crofts, as the house is known in the local community, at first is a refuge to the family.  Charlie is in thrall of its vast grounds and the forest that surrounds it.  Caroline, despite the stress of bipolar disorder, throws herself wholeheartedly into making the old house habitable as a bed and breakfast.  And Ben is getting new ideas for his second novel.

There’s too many uncanny things happening for their stay to be an idyllic retreat.  Some of the locals are welcoming enough; others are not.  Certain behaviors of the community are downright antiquated.  There’s a quiet menace that grows in the surrounding area, and Charlie, an introverted kid, becomes even more withdrawn.

The harshest winter storm of the season tests the Tierney family in more ways than one, and trust is no longer something they have with the natives.  If only they could leave The Crofts…

House of Echoes is a decent page turner that has enough spooky elements and jump moments to make it work.  The book follows in the tradition of The Shining and other books where the house and land themselves become personified and terrifying.

If you like this one, try The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian or A Sudden Light by Garth Stein.

(William Hicks, Information Services)