A Head Full of Ghosts is both a possession/exorcism story and a commentary on them. It’s the kind of book you want to read in one sitting, and then you really want to talk to someone about it. Unfortunately, that’s because it triggers a sort of readus interruptus. You end up wondering which interpretation is true, and each of them carry different implications. Because the significance of the story is so different depending on what’s true, it’s really important to make that call…but the author doesn’t. So what’s this about? What am I supposed to take away from it?
It is almost a brilliant story.
Spoilers from here on out.
The story revolves around your classic suburban American nuclear family, and because it’s a possession novel, that family includes a teenage girl. The father is job-focused, which is a shame because he loses his job. He is also Catholic, and has clearly let his strong religious leanings go in the face of his wife’s unbelief (atheist or agnostic? hard to tell). It’s a point of contention between them. The younger daughter is the POV character, but she’s 8 and telling this to a writer as an adult, so she admits straight-up to being an unreliable narrator. Later events make even her admission of unreliability suspect, so maybe she’s a fully reliable narrator?
Marjorie, the 14yo, starts acting weird. Weirder than your average 14yo girl. The first example Merry gives is Marjorie going out of her way to relate an awful true story to Merry. The second is Marjorie clinging to her wall halfway up, having jammed her hands and feet through the wall where she’s made a psycho wall of poster bits. I feel like you can make the call right there that it’s legitimately a possession, but we have only Merry’s word for this event.
Mom takes Marjorie to a shrink. Dad takes her to a priest. The meds don’t seem to do anything, and the priest recommends that they become a reality show. From here on out, the author hits all the key notes of a possession story (multiple voices, disturbing sexuality, and some truly creepy imagery) but it always careful to make it ambiguous. He has a deft hand with choosing which details to depict and selecting how his 8yo narrator views events. He even pulls off the neat trick of both having us live the filming of the reality show and recap the episodes via a blogger.
All along, he references the key tracts of the gothic horror and possession/exorcism genres. One, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, was obvious in its absence (“Merry” is even Merricat), so when it appears at the gut-punch ending it’s not unexpected. Then there is the final gotcha? where Merry reveals the gut-punch but the description seems to indicate that not only is the “it’s a possession” the correct read, the possessed woman is Merry herself.
Here are the possibilities and their significances:
- There’s no supernatural element. If this is the true read, then the thesis of the story is that white middle-class suburbanites suck. With the inclusion of the writer characters (Rachel and adult Merry), it becomes the kind of self-stroking shit I hate, like American Beauty: “all you people are so banal and only I, the artist, can see it.” Fuck that. Also, if this is the correct read, then the author really really hates religion. I mean, like all sane people, I’m on board with hating Westboro Baptist Church, but Catholicism didn’t deserve that treatment.
- Marjorie is possessed, but not by anything supernatural. She has had a psychotic break from being able to access all the information in the world all the time. There are several indications this is what’s happening – every story she tells she could find online. When the priest says “a girl couldn’t know that” we all cheer when Marjorie’s mother defends her, because duh. Her automatic texting might be the vector of infection, the way Regan got possessed via the Ouija board. Who is Marjorie texting?
- Marjorie was never that weird and this is all Merry’s projection from Merry’s psychological issues of wanting to be her sister. Hard to believe this with the TV show footage.
- Marjorie was or wasn’t possessed, but she manipulated Merry into killing the family. Everything from adult Merry is a fantasy that is happening inside her head after she does that and goes crazy. That would be a pretty weak Shutter Island story.
- There is a supernatural element.
- It’s a house-based gothic horror, like all the stuff he references. If this is the true read, then there needs to be a core, some horrible family secret, and the whole family needs to be destroyed. It’s possible that the whole family was destroyed, but what was the core? Nope, this story is not a gothic horror.
- Marjorie is possessed. If this is the true read, it’s still weird that the Catholic Church was OK with a televised exorcism. The thesis here would be that demonic possession never has a happy ending, for anyone involved. Maybe it’s a traditional possession, maybe the demon just steered her to all the crap available online.
- Marjorie is possessed, but it’s contagious and she transfers it to Merry. That would be new, and if that’s the case (as hinted at the end with the cold), it could have been a really gripping story. If Merry is a demon talking, that would explain the religious hate. But why the long dormancy? What’s the goal of the demon now? If this is the true read, we need more confirmation.
Up until the end, the book was very carefully crafted. His only misstep was having John’s attack on the Westboro Baptist guy be a problem for anyone and a sign of his loss of control. Unless the author is a total pussy, he should understand that anyone would happily take a shot and that most punchable group. He should also understand that any parent, seeing their child attacked like that, would act. Everyone I know who’s read it has been “Go John” at that part. The only way I can tolerate the mother’s response to her husband is to say she’s angry at being forced to engage when she was trying to check out.
On the other hand, it was SO carefully crafted it ended up not being about anything. It certainly wasn’t gothic horror. I’m not sure what the author wants us to leave thinking, or why he told the story. My best guess is that it’s something about presenting a story for an audience, because Adult!Merry needs Rachel, Karen!Merry needs her blog, the events need the reality show, and Marjorie needs Child!Merry. But I can’t quite make out what the meaning is. Religion also needs an audience, and Westboro Baptist certainly does…
I think there’s a very good story hiding in the idea that a young person, anytime from 8 to teen years, could be “possessed” by online media and the information spew that is the Internet. The antagonists each have a different approach to the Internet – the Catholic Church is very controlling about information and very old-fashioned, while Westboro couldn’t exist without the Internet. I love the idea that talking to no one via the alphabet map on your phone is the same as talking to no one via the alphabet map on the Ouija board. I wish Tremblay’s editor had asked him to tease out that story rather than writing with one eye on Hollywood.