Review: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

“On the morning of the exorcism, I stayed home from school.”



Titan Books | 2016

Filed Under: Don’t eat the pasta.

Finding really good, disturbing, well-crafted horror novels is hard for me, even though I love horror. Obviously, this is probably because I’m a picky bitch, but I regret nothing.

Paul Tremblay has been on my list of “horror authors to possibly trust” for a long time, but I think I put off reading his work to avoid the letdown.

But now that it’s officially “stick a pumpkin up my ass and pumpkin spice everything” season, I figure what better time than now to find out if Paul Tremblay is a horror author I can call myself a fan of?

And I’ll tell you, I think I am.

I didn’t love this with an unbridled passion like some other reviewers, but I did like it a lot.

Tremblay does an A+ job of weaving together some of my favourite horror elements. One: the general idea of possession and exorcism. And two: the more abstract idea of what is truly a supernatural event, vs. what is just a mental disorder presenting as a shit-your-pants-scary experience.

In real life, with my feet firmly planted on the ground, I am not religious and I do not believe in magic as an actual thing that actually exists. I suppose, technically, you’d call me an atheist, but I don’t really like the idea of labelling the absence of something. There are no names for people who don’t believe in fairies or don’t accept the existence of leprechauns. So, I don’t really use the term atheist very much.

michael scott atheism GIF

Anyhooters, with that in consideration, I do have a completely unbridled fascination with the concept of possession and exorcism; with the fact that our brains, if we believe strongly enough, can make our bodies do weird, horrifying things.

Like that girl on Dr. Phil who believed she was pregnant so desperately that her womb actually expanded and she began to lactate, even though she was medically decided to be definitely not pregnant.

Do you not find that totally fascinating?! OUR BRAINS ARE AMAZING. It’s insane to me that despite factual evidence to the contrary, someone would still believe they were pregnant that hard. Maybe she’s a Trump voter now.

My interest in that kind of blind belief carries over to people who believe this kind of spiritual hijacking is actually possible. They believe it so hard that their brains will actually convince their bodies to do some crazy things that seem completely legitimate to an observer. I’m not talking about people who just lie and do it for attention and actively know they are faking it, I’m talking about people who truly believe they are possessed in some magical way.

On the flip side of that, in the realm of entertainment and storytelling, a good exorcism movie will scare the shit out of me 9 times out of 10.

exorcism GIF

There is something about the unpredictability of a demon or a possessed body, that is never not scary. I don’t care what you say, religious people being all religious-y and standing over someone who is being all possessed, doing acrobatics, going downstairs in a crabwalk, twisting their joints and saying weird shit in creepy voices? IT IS ALWAYS SCARY.

A Head Full of Ghosts does a really amazing job at mixing all of this together.

Fourteen-year-old Marjorie is either schizophrenic or possessed. Her father, the only religious person in the family, is convinced his daughter is suffering at the hand of the devil. His wife fights him on this pretty frequently and wants a science-based explanation, but soon, with money running out and the situation with Marjorie going from bad to worse, the Barrett family agrees to document their struggles for a reality TV show and have an exorcism performed live on air.

The story is told through the eyes of Barrett’s youngest daughter, Merry. At the time, only eight-years-old, but now a young woman who has agreed to co-write a book about her family with a journalist.

“There’s nothing wrong with me, Merry. Only my bones want to grow through my skin like the growing things and pierce the world.”

There are also break chapters in the form of blog posts from a popular horror blogger, who came across as a mix of a Gilmore Girl because of her creative way with words, and a Valley Girl/character from Clueless. I didn’t really like these sections of the story very much because the tone felt off. These breaks were awkward and disruptive, detracting from the overall suspense and creepy atmosphere that was being built as Merry told the story of her sister’s possession (or lack thereof.)

Though, that’s not to say I don’t understand the point of these blog breaks. There are some reviews that are not super thrilled with Tremblay’s use of cliché horror tropes that are present in exorcism fiction. But as we’ve already established, I don’t care, I love these tropes because I love these kinds of scary stories.  The blog in the novel itself exists to break down these tropes to the point that Tremblay is showing us the mechanics of creating such a story; that they can’t possibly be real because it’s all the same, it’s predictable and obvious and done to death.

I saw this described as a “metafictional horror novel”, and I really love that phrase to describe this. Tremblay takes horror, takes what we love about this particular genre and gives us what we need, while also becoming so philosophical about it that it then reaches the stage of being meta.

What’s more – despite becoming meta and telling you how these stories are created and pointing out all the ways they are cliché; despite the characters themselves batting around the idea that it’s all fake, that there’s some ulterior motive for Marjorie’s behaviour – as the reader you can’t let go of the idea that maybe it’s true, maybe Marjorie actually is possessed.

It’s that thing that people are having a really hard time with these days – accepting rational information as it’s presented to them. You just keep that red baseball cap on and keep telling yourself everything is going really well and JFK is alive and politicians are secret superheroes come to save the children.

That’s the power of fear. Whether it’s fear of the unknown, of the unseen, or fear of the other.

And omigod that ending! That’s exactly why the phrase here’s the fucking twist, exists.

There’s nothing creepier than a person committing an unspeakable act in a quiet, unassuming way. The book maintained a feeling of skin-crawling uncertainty as evil was committed with smiles and laughter and without a clear motive; with tricks and lies, creating an abyss where closure should be.

In that sense, A Head Full of Ghosts aced the psychological horror aspect it was aiming for – a subtly chilling story that toys with your perceptions, your sense of reality and those fears that make humans do things they know better than to do. If Marjorie was just mentally ill, you have nothing to worry about. But, if something supernatural was truly going on, you could be next. Better get to praying. (Please, read that last part in a sinister tone, because it’s what I was going for.)

Anyhooters, this was a perfect Pumpkin-Ass season read.


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.

4 thoughts on “Review: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

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