A Head Full of Ghosts.
3.5 stars out of 5.
The lives of the Barretts, a 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 halt 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, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls the terrifying events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories begin to surface and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed.
I received a free copy of this book courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
A Head Full of Ghosts tells the story of the Barretts, a normal suburban middle class family of husband John), wife (Sarah) and their two daughters (Marjorie – the elder and Merry – the younger sibling). The title “A Head Full of Ghosts” is a nod to Marjorie Barrett and her descent into madness. The medication and counselling aren’t helping improve her condition and one day while Sarah is with Merry, John instead of taking Marjorie to her Doctor’s appointment ends up outside a Catholic church. The Priest manages to calm Marjorie down and this seems to help her, could it really be demonic possession and not schizophrenic ravings of a seriously ill teenager? Sarah wants to keep with the medication and Doctor’s disbelieving in religion and possession but is gradually worn down by John who is a God-fearing man.
Due to circumstances, high medical bills, money worries and the fact that John has been out of work for a year the family agree to the filming of Marjorie’s “possession” and the religious investigation into it, becoming the unsuspecting stars of reality TV show The Possession which in the years after its airing has achieved a cult like urban legend status.
The book takes place fifteen years after The Possession ended when a best-selling writer tracks down the younger daughter Merry and interviews her trying to find the truth behind the TV show and what really happened both on and off camera for her new book. Interspersed with Merry’s recollection of the events is the occasional interlude by the blogger Karen Brissette, a massive fan of The Possession TV show who blogs about it, trying to deconstruct what went on the show, the special effects, the writing/lines and the blurred lines of what is faked and what is actually real.
I’m finding this book hard to review as on the one hand I really liked it but at the same time I was also left feeling disappointed with it to. And, for that I actually blame the cover, on it there’s a quote by Stephen King “Scared the hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare” now that quote got me thinking that I’d be in for a real shocker of a book that was full of scares and frights. Well, I’m sad to say that didn’t happen as A Head Full of Ghosts scared the legendary author and horror maestro himself Mr King but failed to scare me. While it’s an accolade to have an author like Mr King offer up a quote for the cover of the book, I can’t help but feel that it would have been better if the quote wasn’t there as it made me anticipate a real scary tale and that’s not what I got. Instead what I got was an immersive and creepy tale that did shock me in a couple of places but never outright scared me.
I admit there maybe some of you out there who will be scared by the book as everyone is different. But the book includes nothing that you won’t have seen in any of the plethora of horror movies that are out there ranging from the classic The Exorcist up to the more modern found footage movies like Paranormal Activity and its subsequent sequels and you can clearly see their influences in the book.
The characterisation on a whole is top quality though the characters themselves and the setting are all very stereotypical, the detached and sullen teenager, the stressed parents with differing viewpoints on what is the right and the wrong way to help Marjorie, the energetic and curious younger sister in Merry and then the minor characters, the TV crew and the Priest, Father Wanderly. All will be familiar to you if you have the remotest interest in horror films and have seen even just one movie from the genre. That’s not to detract from the characters, though I admit I wasn’t to enamoured with either of the parents but they are fully fleshed characters and you understand the reasoning behind their separate beliefs and actions as they both have differing personalities. The bond between the two siblings is both deep and really well explored. And, young Merry is very likeable and you also can’t help but feel empathy for the older version of her who is recounting the tragic events from her past. I also liked Ken, one of the TV crew, he only has a very small role but his relationship with Merry during the filming of the TV show was a nice additional touch as while the parents were trying to deal with the goings on surrounding Marjorie it was nice to see someone with time for Merry even if it was just kicking the soccer ball around.
Mention also needs to go to the blogger Karen Brissette, her interludes during the book are one of the absolute highlights. Breaking up Merry’s recollection with Karen’s blog was a fantastic idea by Tremblay, as it gives you a break from the dark retelling of the tragic tale that befell the Barretts with a funny sarcastic aside on the actual The Possession show trying to debunk the myth behind it.
With the story taking place predominantly in a single house, the setting needs to be interesting and Tremblay does bring the house to life making it as much a part of the story as the family who lives there. Centering around the Barrett family, Tremblay does a great job of bringing both them and their family life to life on the pages and as you see the stresses and strains that Marjorie’s condition is having on them you find yourself becoming pulled into their story as the relationships between the family members deteriorate.
The book itself is well written and Tremblay does a good job of captivating you as he weaves his tale building to the conclusion. His fast paced descriptive style of writing does a great job of making you care about both Marjorie and Merry and he also has a deft hand at amping up the tension throughout, especially during certain moments. The story moves along at a decent pace with nothing dragging and flows well. I wasn’t expecting some of the secrets revealed at the end which was a pleasant surprise.
I’ve perhaps been slightly harsh in my assessment of A Head Full of Ghosts in places but that’s down to it not being what I at first expected. However, if you forgo the lack of outright scares and look deeper into the story being told then you are in for a book that is a really enjoyable, engrossing and creepy read.
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