A Head Full Of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay book review

Does Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full Of Ghosts justify the hype?

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You may have heard of Paul Tremblay’s latest horror novel, as it won the Bram Stoker Award last year, but it’s finally been released here in the UK, and it is absolutely worth the wait. Terrifying, intelligent and surprisingly affecting, this is horror to shout about.

Things get off to very meta start, as Meredith ‘Merry’ Barrett agrees to regale her story to an author for a tell-all book. Her tale is already famous: the subject of a reality TV show based on the apparent possession and subsequent exorcism of her older, then-teenage, sister Marjorie.

While a horror blog breaks down the show in intricate detail, Merry remembers how Marjorie’s psychological issues grew worse and worse. But what was fact, and what was fiction? As Merry’s story moves towards the show’s grand finale, we start to uncover the tragic truth.

Tremblay definitely knows the audience that he’s writing for, and exactly how genre-literate they are. So while there are explicit references to possession movies from Evil Dead to The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, there are also subtle nods to classics like Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle. That book, with its unreliable narrator and dark secrets, is obviously a very important influence here. Ambiguity is key from the outset, and it’s not even clear whether Merry herself knows the truth.

The introduction to a cash-strapped family on the edge of breakdown might seem familiar (short-tempered dad, over-worked mum, moody teen and precocious child), but Tremblay makes each of these characters ring true, and wastes no time introducing the horror. A very early sequence in which Marjorie tells Merry the story of the Boston molasses incident using Richard Scarry characters is genuinely creepy, as is the doom-laden tale that follows, which she urges her sister to remember.

Each of Marjorie’s subsequent outbursts are gripping and horrifying, even as the blog notes their similarities to moments from The Exorcist. This first section, before the media circus arrives, is the most scary, but that’s not to imply that what follows is any less effective.

With the arrival of Father Wanderly and the TV crew, we see how control has been totally lost. Dad flits between evangelical fervour, rage and exhaustion, Mom is horrified by what she’s allowing to happen, but too run down to realise that it’s not too late to stop it, and Marjorie doesn’t get better.

Her father goes on and on about how doctors haven’t helped, but Wanderly’s eagerness to diagnose Marjorie’s illness as being diabolical in nature is skin-crawling. Meanwhile, at the epicentre is a 14-year-old who may be inconsistent in what she’s telling her little sister, but most definitely needs help.

Tremblay drops hints about where the story is going in the final third, each one of them landing like a bombshell, and Merry’s narration is a constant reminder of the impact this terrible event has had on this young woman.

It’s aware of how clever it is, but that in no way lessens the novel’s impact. With tricks up its sleeve until the very end, A Head Full Of Ghosts is a fantastic horror story that we can’t recommend highly enough.