Author: Paul Tremblay
The Barretts are already struggling when their eldest daughter, Marjorie, begins to act strangely. Before her decline, Marjorie was the perfect sister, inviting her younger sibling, Merry, into her room, reading her cute stories, making up tales with fuzzy animals and fun adventures. But now, Marjorie scares Mary. The stories are getting darker, more violent, more bizarre, and Marjorie isn’t acting appropriately, isn’t acting like herself. Eight-year-old Merry is afraid of her own sister.
As events spiral out of control, the Barretts splinter in how they approach an increasingly unhinged and shockingly violent Marjorie. The mother believes in science and medicine, in the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. But the doctors and medications don’t seem to be making things better. The out-of-work father stops looking for a job, stops supporting his family, and turns to religion instead. As the parents fight for Marjorie’s sanity and her soul, Merry is helplessly trapped, knowing things she shouldn’t know, seeing things she doesn’t understand, watching her parents fight and becoming increasingly terrified of her once loving sister.
As the father becomes more deeply involved with the church, a priest he befriends recommends an exorcism. From there, a reality TV franchise becomes interested in Marjorie’s story and the preparation for the exorcism. The Barretts are desperate and about to lose their house, so they agree. From here, things get muddled. Marjorie tells her sister that it is all pretend – all to help the family make money – and Merry plays along, making things seem even worse. But is Marjorie lying? Is this the story of a mentally ill teenager not getting the care she desperately needs? Is this the story of a demon possessed girl torturing her family? Or is this the story of a teen acting out, manipulating her parents and society? The conclusion leaves it vague, but Paul Tremblay seeds this sordid American suburb turned charnel house story with enough hints that readers can guess.
A Head Full of Ghosts is actually well told, despite the reality TV spin and intermittent snarky blog posts, which read in a very My Heart is a Chainsaw style. There is quality to this craft and a subtle, growing sense of cloying urgency. There are enough hints to support all three of the possibilities: insanity, possession, and evil manipulation horror-child style. Merry is the point-of-view character, and we track between her eight-year-old mind and her adult self, now revealing her full story to a journalist for the first time. This keeps the fractured what-is-happening nature of the narrative fresh and colors memories with the understanding and cynicism of an adult. It’s quirky and weird, yet oddly believable. Even the TV series is justified by the financial desperation of the family and the crudity of the priest, who is evidently preying on simple people for church gain.
But this is where my ire was raised, and thus the low rating for a book that is admittedly well told and structured. A Head Full of Ghosts is distinctly anti-religious and sacrilegious. The only religious character – the Barrett family father – is a simpleton, a man who instead of facing reality turns to superstition. The atheist mother is often cruel and belligerent to her husband, dismissing his beliefs, and as such she is lauded as the only character with any sense. This false representation is disgusting, and the hatred of God and religion is so overwhelming that it colors every single aspect of the story. This is a very hard story for Christian to read, much less enjoy, and while I can admit that the telling and structure is quality, the “obscene” moral, the attack on God, is nothing but blatant sacrilege thinly veiled by a shock-value kid-in-danger idea.
The ending is surprising and twisted. Even though I hated, hated, hated what this story was saying, I did like how the bleak ending remained with readers. This is where the twist comes into play and where the author leaves us with the triumvirate of options. We never do get a for-sure answer, and it is haunting and ultimately sad.
Nevertheless, I cannot in good conscience recommend this book. Its attack on God and any believing, practicing Christian, as well as its caricature of religious figures and the Church as a money-grubbing evil entity is insulting, simplistic, and evil. Not recommended.
– Frances Carden
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