Now in paperback! I read an advance copy of this last year and loved it—couldn't get enough of it. It was cinematic horror like I'd never seen: all the elements I loved about classic slashers cut up and retold as a newfangled exorcism tale. And keep your eyes peeled—no, not for demons—but there's another new exorcism book in town (any guesses?) that I've recently finished and it'll be finding it's way to my blog this week as well!
Oh, just another book about exorcisms, you say? Well, think again.
When your older sister starts acting strange—clawing at the walls and saying ghosts are in her head are just the low-key parts—and your dad brings in not only religion, but the reality TV crews, life can get a bit crazy for your average eight-year-old. That's the situation that young Merry Barrett finds herself in. Her sister Marjorie used to be her best friend, but now, she doesn't know what to think. Is it some sort of medical condition? Could it be catching? Is it just hormones and teen angst? Or could it be supernatural? Could there really be a demon inhabiting her sister? Or, even worse, could she just be faking it all?
This is a modern reinvention that uncovers what a world with cell phones, Google, and reality TV can do with horror. More importantly, it is OUR world, a world that is aware of The Exorcist (the book and the movie), Paranormal Activity and other exorcism/possession stories that are such a part of our cultural awareness. Already, you are thinking this book is more interesting, right? It isn’t trying to write the next The Exorcist, but it isn’t trying to ignore that The Exorcist is a thing, and a pretty big one at that.
Tremblay knows his stuff about horror, both the backlist and the theory. I love that he isn’t afraid to acknowledge what came before and praise his influences. But at the same time, this isn’t just a rehash of the same-old same-old spider-walking, floor-peeing, 360-head-turning exorcism story that you expect; it is a very original piece. It keeps you involved and wondering what’s coming next. I felt a lot like I was one of the shameless people watching the TV show, being a voyeur into this poor girl’s past.
There are so many interesting levels here, the past and present of the main character’s mind, the TV show, blog, and first person interviews. It is amazing what Tremblay has managed to pack into this 300 page book. The irreverent writing style is reminiscent of the Scream movies (of which the second season of a surprisingly good TV show is now airing on MTV of all places) which I’m sure is not an accident. It says its okay to be funny in a horror book, that it's okay to be real. It's not all doors creaking open, low synth music, and bad jump scares mostly starring cats. There can be moments of lightness and moments of normality—those moments not only break up the horror, but they highlight it. Humor makes horror more scary, makes it more real.
This is a book that is paving the way for a new type of horror. A modern (postmodern?) type of horror that isn’t afraid to acknowledge that horror movies exist, and further, a type whose characters are aware of those movies. I like characters who use their smarts (and their technology) like I would if I were in their shoes. I'm the girl always yelling at the screen for dummies to use their cell phone as a flashlight, DUH! Of course, characters in horror are still there to teach us a lesson, but we need to find new mistakes for them to make, new ways for them to be dumb—it can’t always just be teens having sex in the woods, if you know what I mean.
On another note, this book holds onto the fantastic in such an interesting way for such a long time, arguably, for the whole book. We don't quite know if it's supernatural or not. Does Marjorie need a doctor, or a priest? She could just be exhibiting signs of of some kind of mental illness that the doctors didn't uncover.
Or, her illness could be even more sadistic, or even psychopathic. Is she faking it all, and if so, what is her end game? Merry is easily manipulated by her sister, whom she adores and looks up to. Maybe the whole "the-power-of-Christ-compels-you" sideshow is just a smokescreen fabricated by Marjorie and everyone is paying attention to the wrong kid.
On the other hand, she could definitely be possessed. I mean, there's some wacky stuff going on in that house—stuff that normal people aren't capable of. It's scary. I'm warning you—this book scared Stephen King. And who's to say the devil wouldn't possess her and make her act like a psychopath to achieve it's own aims?
Or perhaps the whole thing is a stunt manufactured for ratings on the TV show? A chilling thought. But people have done crazier things when they are desperate for money. What I can say for sure, is that's a TV show I definitely watch and I don't think I'd be alone.
But hey, these are just my conspiracy theories. If you want to know what's really going on, you'll have to read the book.
The point is that it's chilling how you aren't really sure quite what is going on. And even if you (yes, you, Smarty Pants,) think you have the narrative figured out, do you really believe that Merry is the most reliable narrator? The story is being told from her confused and scared 8-year-old perspective, which although illuminating in some ways, I think obfuscates a lot. We can't really rely on her to give us the full scoop.
Tremblay's on the right track. This book also recently won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel—a high honor for horror. His next book, Disappearance at Devil's Rock, is due out this month. I'll definitely be picking it up.
Get your copy of A Head Full of Ghosts
Pre-order Disappearance at Devil's Rock
Find out more about Paul Tremblay
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Find out more about the publisher, William Morrow (Harper Collins)
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.