Book Review: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Paul Tremblay, the author of the recently released A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS and I have a lot in common. We’re both teachers (in prisons), we’re both tall (over 7 feet tall!), we’re the same age (mid-60’s), and we both don’t like pickles, although I don’t have the apparent phobia of them that Tremblay does. Where Tremblay and I differ though–besides I’m clearly the handsomer of the two of us–is that–and it pains me to write this–he’s clearly smarter than I am. And I love that and hate that at the same time.
How do I know Tremblay’s smarter than I am? Because I’ve read almost everything he’s published. His intelligence is in his stories, his writing, and in the level of depth he puts into both. I’ve always said the movies and books I appreciate the most are the ones I truly know I couldn’t have written. For example: I’m fairly certain I could have followed the beats to have written Paul Blart: Mall Cop, but I also know I couldn’t have written something as tightly plotted but also minimalistic as Whiplash or Blue Ruin. (Go watch both if you haven’t already.) Let me put it to you this way–I know what I’m capable of and what I’m not capable of, and A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS is a novel I’m not capable of. There’s an insane amount of creativity, experimentation, and darkness here I couldn’t begin to produce. So that makes Paul Tremblay smarter than me. (But if you’re reading this, Tremblay, this only applies to writing. I guarantee I’m smarter than you when it comes to things that are important, like children’s TV trivia, so who’s the real winner here? That’s right. This guy.)
A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS tells the story of the alleged possession of Marjorie Barrett. I say alleged because by having the narrator be her 8-year-old sister Merry, who’s retelling the events to a woman writing a book of the events, Tremblay creates an unreliable narrator who must on her shaky memory and episodes of a reality TV show filming Marjorie’s ordeal in order to make sense of what happened. Add into the mix blog entries heavily analyzing the TV episodes, and we’re left wonder if Marjorie was truly possessed by a demon or was manipulating her family and the production company for her own reasons. I usually dislike ambiguity, but as it’s a central theme in the novel and not just an author being vague for vague’s sake or because he or she can’t figure out how to end something, I’m fine with it here. More than fine with it, actually, because it’s these grey areas of the novel that I loved the most.
Because possession stories are similar, many of Marjorie’s possession occurrences will seem familiar. But the brilliance of this novel is that those possession cliches–vomitting, blasphemous rantings, sudden vicious attacks–are all incorporated into the question of whether or not Marjorie is truly possessed or just an astute follower of films involving exorcisms. It all gets very meta, no more so than in the blog posts which are a film nerd’s dream of frame-by-frame analysis for a show that doesn’t even really exist. It’s all just very, very cool. I loved every page.
And now, since I still haven’t figured out how to end a review smoothly, I’ll say this–go buy this novel. It’s unsettling, deeply creative, and (dammit) smart. Add to that the fact that Paul Tremblay’s one of the good guys you want to succeed, and buying this book is a no-brainer. Pick it up now.