A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay – a review by Gary Fry
I’d heard a lot of positive things about this novel and so couldn’t resist grabbing a copy. I didn’t want to miss out on what folk were suggesting was a great literary experience – who would?
Anyway, I got started at once and soon found myself in the grip of an interesting narrative involving a woman’s childhood experiences, particularly an event concerning her sister, who was supposed as a child to have been possessed by a demon and became the subject of a reality TV show which affected the whole family to a disconcerting degree.
So that’s the plot, really. The story is told in a series of flashbacks, latter-day retrospective blog entries about the TV show, and a few dialogue-based scenes in which the narrator discusses events with a journalist who plans to write up the whole story.
This is a tricksy book, with many sleight-of-hand techniques on display right from the off. That blog first alerts us to possible subterfuges being practiced, while also serving as a reflexive critique of horror fiction’s grab-box, a range of techniques from which effective dark tales are commonly constructed. But then the first-person backstory starts to slink and slide, too, with an admission from the narrator’s sister revealing further underhandedness.
This is all very cunning material, and the novel starts to take the form of an impossible portrait, something Escher might have conjured in an impish frame of mind. We the readers start to question who (if anyone) is telling us the truth, and -- more importantly, perhaps – who can be trusted? Gradually, all the characters begin to appear untrustworthy, with the poor beleaguered narrator subject to sibling deception, parental manipulation, media invasion, and even interference from the moral police. The whole book eventually becomes quite a damning depiction of modern American attitudes to such issues as the patriarchal family, religion, mental illness, popular entertainment, and more.
So, as you can surmise, this novel is considerably more than a ghost story. Indeed, the narrative, which intermittently achieves an eerie kind of resonance – the strangling scene set in the doll’s house is insidiously troubling; the early sequences showing the sister’s aberrant behaviours starkly upsetting – constantly undermines itself, with those blog posts serving as a kind of rational debunking, a voice of reason deconstructing such in-yer-face horrors.
And all this would render the book a clever satire on all such matters…if it didn’t darken considerably in its final act. Now we’re in the realms of genuine horror. I can’t reveal much without lapsing into significant spoilers, but let me just say that the event with which the backstory ends is far more disturbing than anything which might have occurred in a more supernatural-oriented narrative.
And that’s the lot: just one more chapter to go to wrap things up. That’s how these fictions work, after all. But oh Lord, in a subtly worded final section, Tremblay pulls off yet another twist, and one which forces us the readers to re-evaluate everything we’ve just read. It’s a fitting conclusion to such an elusive novel, one in which the truth remains frustratingly out of grasp, but which will remain long in memory until, like a tongue returning to a ragged-edged tooth, we’ll read it all again, with a view to spotting those moments when the misdirection occurred.
We won’t get fooled again, no sir. The devil isn’t that clever…is (s)he?