Ambiguity in horror fiction is nothing new. It’s been notably employed by Henry James in The Turn of the Screw, and Shirley Jackson in The Haunting of Hill House. Those genre giants likely influenced author Paul Tremblay. His A Head Full of Ghosts, published by William Morrow, seems a literary tip of the hat to them. Tremblay’s splendidly executed novel plays with the concept of what constitutes truth. Is veracity an absolute, or something far more psychologically malleable?
The book’s protagonist is Meredith “Merry” Barrett, a glib young woman in her early twenties. When Merry was eight years old, her adolescent sister Marjorie started manifesting signs of acute schizophrenia. The financially strapped family had difficulty paying for Marjorie’s medical care, and Catholicism provided solace for the household’s out-of-work father. His friendship with a local priest paved the way for a spiritual evaluation of Marjorie. It was determined because of her vast knowledge of unusual facts, and behavior that mimicked, sometimes to the point of parody, Regan O’Neill’s in The Exorcist, that she was a prime candidate for an exorcism. Ironically, spirituality yielded financial redemption: The Barrett family became the fodder for a hit reality TV series. The aftermath, however, was quite grim.
Fifteen years later, Merry recounts the tragic irony of it all. Her sardonic wit permeates the narration, as she peppers remembrances with references to horror pop culture that are delightfully snarky and smart. Vulnerability lurks beneath the sarcastic surface of her persona, which makes her sympathetic, but there’s a rather dubious quality about her personality. Merry was a highly imaginative and challenging child who knew how to push buttons to get a reaction. As an adult she retains remnants of those attributes.
Duplicity, rationalizations, and perception factor into the wry observations. Dark humor is pervasive, but some of Merry’s recollections are extremely disquieting, such as this passage: “I couldn’t understand how Marjorie wasn’t right there next to me with her hands cupped around her mouth, because she was so shockingly loud. She screamed like I’ve never heard someone scream, before or since. Her hyperactive pitch was layered and schizophrenic, imploding down to a singularity, then going big bang, expanding and exploding all over everything. These dizzying changes in her voice were instantaneous and hallucinatory, as if she were somehow atonally harmonizing with herself.”
Author Paul Tremblay embraces the horror genre with exuberant reverence. There are “in” jokes/allusions that will tickle the fancy of horror aficionados. The more a reader knows about the genre, the greater the pleasure derived from the novel. Literary, yet oh so hip, A Head Full of Ghosts is a book that satisfies on many levels.