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)