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Book 20: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Updated: Sep 14, 2022

The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.

To her parents' despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie's descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts' plight. With John, Marjorie's father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.

Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie's younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface--and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.

a pre(r)amble

according to my goodreads account, i read this originally in june of 2015. i was 23 and working for one of the big 4 publishing houses and i remember browsing the "take shelves" on every floor and stumbling upon this and taking it home. and, quite like this time, I devoured this book.

terrifying and psychologically mesmerizing. a new favorite. my goodreads review, June 2015

I've always been kind of a wimp when it comes to horror movies. growing up I would try to avoid them as much as I could; only watching them when sleeping over my cousin's house and then immediately forcing her to rewatch sailor moon r: the promise of a rose immediately after. she'd always tease me about it but, to be fair, I think she also loved that movie so...

as I grew older, I tried to be more adventurous -- watching scary movies at the library with my friends during their horror movie screenings after school -- but I didn't really start watching them in earnest until my twenties.

that being said, I love horror novels. I love spooky stories. reading stories and poems by Edgar allen poe, my mom's friend giving me my first Stephen king novel (bag of bones), and on and on. I had read other dark and mysterious things in between, but I loved a book that would scare me.

I've always found the juxtaposition between my inclination towards horror novels and my aversion to horror movies weird because, to me, the monsters I envisioned were far scarier than any monster or supernatural entity depicted on screen.

but possessions? oof. on paper or on screen, possessions scare me the most.

which leads me here.

I think the reason possession scare me the most are because I deeply fear the loss of control (which is interesting, because getting cancer was the biggest loss of control I've ever faced... but I digress...). so, of course, I love reading books or watching movies/shows where this is a main plot line.

In rereading this book, I wanted to see if the horror and suspense from the first time I read it would still live up to what I remembered. additionally, I thought I remembered more than I did and I was grateful for how much of the plot I forgot. for the most part, I remembered a majority of the premise and first half of the novel but I completely forgot how the book ends and thank goodness because that ending... woof. that ending got me.

the main plot circles around the Barrett family, as told by merry (the youngest of the two sisters); and recounts the barrett family's quest to help their teen daughter Marjorie (the older of the two sisters), and how their lives become affected once they agree to film a reality show ("the possession") surrounding marjorie's suspected possession. the book is told in three perspectives:

  1. Adult Merry being interviewed by a best-selling author for a "tell-all" book (circa 2020's)

  2. Child Merry living through the occurrences surrounding the creation of the reality show "The possession" (circa 2010)

  3. a blogger, who writes a critical analysis of the show and speculates on whether aspects of the show were real or dramatized for ratings. (circa mid to late 2010's)

one of the main concerns I had rereading this book is whether the format of it would carry its weight almost a decade later. given how far our "social network" has expanded in the past 7 years, does the lack of social media help or hurt the plot line? I think the answer is it doesn't really matter. the only real connection to the internet in the book is the Tumblr-esque blog, but it holds up. if there were more than that, it wouldn't really impact the story in either direction. at the time the readers step into the story, we're supposed to be about 15 years out from when the show aired and we're meant to assume that it aired in the late 00's/early10's (around the time of the "Great Recession" in America), so reading it now, in 2022, aligns with the "adult merry" timeline. we're still obsessed with reality tv and this definitely fits into the discovery+ network of reality shows.

I think it was a great choice to have the three perspectives narrate the story. it gives a greater depth into merry's emotions during each stage of her life; especially as she reveals to the writer later into the plot that she is also the blogger. it helps give indication of how merry coped with the events surrounding the possession, as a teen, and later as an adult; while also being true to the voice of a young, teen, and adult woman processing trauma. this was beautifully done. I love the "frame story" or "story within a story" device; I love that I can easily get sucked into present day merry and childhood merry's point of view so seamlessly, It reads more like watching a documentary than anything else.

naturally, the main relationship this book centers on is the one between merry and marjorie. here is a very innocent quality to how merry admires her sister that rings at the very core of childlike wonder and I think what makes her point of view the most effective. if this were a third person omniscient and we were able to follow the rest of the family and even the crew, I think the book would be diluted of all of its horror. all of its fear is the childhood fear of monsters lurking under our beds. the uncanny reaching out to grab our foot when it strays outside the covers. and it makes the ending of the book that much more impactful...

~ Spoilers Ahead! ~

the ending. don't say I didn't warn you.

this is the part I completely forgot. the big reveal... merry admitting to the writer that, under the coercion of marjorie, she is the one who dumps the cyanide into the spaghetti sauce; effectively being the one who kills her entire family.

which leads me to so many questions. the book itself ends like the end of inception. what is marjorie's motive throughout the book? initially, it seems like she's just trying to help her family in whatever deluded way she believed would help them get the money they needed to make it through. but in the end, she tells merry that she does it in the hopes that the camera crew and everyone would realize it was her father who needed help. so in the end, did she give up hope? or was she having a mental break and acting upon her deluded fantasy? she sets her father up to be a textbook depiction of a family annihilator but would that have happened anyway? it is clear throughout the book, John barrett is spiraling out of control. how far would he have gone? was marjorie behind the communication between John and the pastor? or did John really have those damning conversations? or was marjorie setting him up to take the fall for the family's death? who really bought the cyanide? had marjorie planned this all along? was the "growing things" story that marjorie tells really a warning? and, if so, was it warning merry of their father... or of her?

all of these unanswered questions are what keeps this book at the top of mind. what allows me to write probably the longest review (which has taken about 10 days to write). and, admittedly, I feel like it still needs more. I feel like it's lacking. but maybe that's just the perfectionism talking...

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