Recently I read an article about eleven recent novels that Stephen King apparently found scary. Being the fan of His Royal Scariness that I am, I checked out the article and found this book at the top of the list. The premise sounded interesting, so the next time I had a credit for an Audible audio book, I got A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, which is about a young woman who tells us her memories of when her elder sister started showing symptoms of schizophrenia, but when treatment after treatment seems to fail, the family comes to the conclusion that the sister is possessed, and somehow a reality show documenting the family’s attempts to exorcise their daughter evolves.

Like I said, it sounded interesting, and it was, though I wouldn’t call it scary. I mean, there are a few moments that can be terrifying, but even imagining them as a horror movie in my head, I didn’t really feel that it was as scary as King hyped it up to be.

Still, A Head Full of Ghosts is definitely not a dull read. In fact, it’s quite entertaining. The main character and narrator, Meredith “Merry” Barrett, is one of the most enjoyable types of narrators, the unreliable kind (see my post on unreliable narrators). Eight years old at the time of the events of the novel, she tells them anew to a writer for a new book in the year 2030 (which apparently still values paperbacks and blogs. I find that reassuring). As she tells us early in the novel, she misremembers a lot of what happened, due to the passage of time and of course what everyone has told her has happened.

To a certain extent, most of the characters in this novel is unreliable to a degree. We can’t tell what’s up with the older sister: is she possessed, is she schizophrenic, is she something we don’t have a word for? The things she says and does, you get a lot of conflicting signals. I have my guesses, but you really don’t know at all, right up to the end. The father is struggling because of unemployment (I sympathize) and has recently rediscovered God and begins to see everything through a religious lens with disastrous results. The mother seems to be perpetually grumpy and wavering between trying to be in control and trying to be responsible as her life unravels. The priest from the Catholic Church seems priestly, but underneath that you get a sense that he’s milking this situation for his own reasons. It’s amazing how little you can actually trust these characters.

My favorite parts of the novel involve segues into a blog by a horror fan (a woman after my own heart) where she gives us an idea of what watching the reality show was like, as well some good ol’ scholarly examination of some of the show’s deeper meanings. And all with a snarky voice too. These segments are hilarious and fun, but they also help us as readers put the story and characters into context and prepare us for future events in the novel.

Another part I enjoyed about the novel is just seeing Merry and her family experience her sister’s illness/possession/whatever and then the craziness that is being the subject of a reality show, how fame has its downsides, how the show and the ordeal brings out the worst in her family, how her relationship with her sister becomes strained by all these events. It’s a very engrossing evolution.

One problem I do have with this novel (besides the fact that I never really found it scary) is that we never really see Merry outside of the context of her family or the show. Not even when we see her as an adult, because it’s fairly obvious that her family and the show has affected the adult she’s become. I would’ve liked to see Mary outside of the context of the family or the show, maybe in the company of friends or her soccer program. Those aspects of her life are mentioned, but they’re not really delved into, and I think she would’ve been a fuller character if we saw that her family and what’s going on around it isn’t entirely what defines her.

Oh, that and I didn’t particularly care for the audio book’s narrator. I mean she was good, especially when she was voicing the older sister, but when she does male voices, especially the father character’s voice, it sounds like every daughter’s impression of her embarrassing father or teacher. Just not convincing at all, more comical than anything.

All in all, I give A Head Full of Ghosts a 3.9 out of 5. It’s not as scary as I’d hoped it would be (or maybe I just listened to it wrong), but it’s psychological, it’s entertaining, and you want to see it through to the end. If you’re looking for a book that’s like The Exorcist with a modern twist, this might not be for you. But if you want to read something with dark subjects but you’d like to sleep at night, I think you’ll find this book fits the bill.

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Comments
  1. LOL! I loved your comment on her male voices – that literally made me laugh out loud!

    • You’d probably laugh if you heard her as well. It would be like if your teenage daughter (I don’t know if you have one, I don’t exactly keep a detailed record of your family life because that would be creepier than this book) decided to do an impression of your husband. Totally unconvincing.
      The audio book I’m listening to now, the narrator does a better job of guys. You still know that it’s a woman doing a bad impression of a guy, but you feel it’s a bit more convincing than the narrator from “A Head Full of Ghosts”.

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