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.
Why don’t authors spend as much time researching foreign policy as they do science? Andy Weir got some of the science wrong in The Martian, but just small details. Then he got ALL of the foreign policy so laughably wrong it discredits the rest of the book. He might as well have written that a team of brown and black poor people left a Muslim abandoned on an island, and Donald Trump selflessly contributed all his money to the rescue effort, swimming out himself to bring the guy to America, where the whole team was made citizens.
If you read that, you wouldn’t care how good the Muslim guy’s science and problem solving was, or how funny his quips are – you wouldn’t be able to take the story seriously, nor would you think the overall problem had been resolved in any realistic way.
I don’t mean to bag on Weir, who is a friend of a friend (but who isn’t?)…he’s just following in the footsteps of so many other creatives. Authors and filmmakers strive to get the science and technology and military aspects right. They don’t always achieve it, but they try. Police and medical and legal procedural aspects are sometimes researched and generally only abused when the author/filmmaker needs a lazy way to create or resolve conflict. But whenever diplomacy and foreign affairs are included in a story, it’s clear that not one shred of research has been done, and not one bit of verisimilitude is desired. Why?
Theory #1: No one’s bothered about it before, and no one complains, so why expend the effort?
Theory #2: “I watch the news so I already know everything about this stuff.”
Theory #3: It’s really complex, and not at all sexy. I mean, they don’t even use guns!
Theory #4: “All the people who work for international agreements have to be as dumb, fucked-up, and selfish as Congress, right? I’ll just write them like Congress.”
Theory #5: All of the above.
Foreign affairs practitioners, be they the diplomats and military and espionage professionals ofthe JSOC and the JTTF (as character-assassinated by Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War), Foreign Service Officers (even if you assume that a guy wouldn’t know he was fucking a dude, to give Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly its premise, no FSO is going to exclaim “I got promoted to Third Secretary!”), or the magical science and technology liaisons of the world’s space programs in The Martian, are the Rodney Dangerfields of fiction. They get no respect.
The work, and the world they work in is incredibly complex, and by failing to show the same respect for the profession that they show to the military, our media tells the public that it’s OK to be uninformed or misinformed, and OK to disregard foreign affairs. Then you get Obama (at best), who had to learn it on the job and never really undid the mess left by Bush, or you get Trump (I’m not going to say “at worst,” because while Trump’s presence as the GOP nominee is unimaginably bad, it can always get worse), who can sell the idea of a wall along the US-Mexico border, paid for by Mexico as a possible thing.
Please. Don’t include the foreign affairs career in your work if you aren’t going to treat it with the same respect you’d show any other element.
ETA: A friend reminded me that this is one of the two reasons I quit watching Black Mirror (the other was the gaspingly atrocious misogyny): the unrealistic depictions of politicians and leaders in service of the plot. For the story to happen that way, the creators replaced the experts with characters who had the professional expertise of a rutabaga.
This is my theory: superhero movies are filling that gap in our entertainment lives that would be filled with ballet, if we were wealthy and/or Russian. You go to the ballet to gasp in awe at the feats of physicality, to be emotionally manipulated by music, costume, movement, and spectacle, even if you don’t know what the fuck you are watching.
And let’s face it, Swan Lake makes a lot more sense than Captain America: Civil War.
That’s the only reason I can come up with to justify the giddy love for CA:CW, a movie that I and two 11-year-old boys found decidedly meh. The combination of beautiful women, muscular men, and choreography must just set the lizard brain awash in happy juice, decoupling it from all rational higher brain functions.
I love looking at Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans as much as the next person, and I love Sebastian Stan’s glower, Chadwick Boseman and Paul Bettany’s voices, and everything about RDJ’s Tony Stark (but mostly the cool tech). The costume design and manufacturing, the special effects, most of the fight choreography, the shot compositions: all great. But like so much ballet and opera, it’s sound and fury with no significance, no story that can survive even the barest consideration.
From a big picture standpoint, MCU need Cap and Iron Man to fight in this one. They couldn’t do the Civil War storyline from the comics, because it’s no longer topical to talk about how awful the Patriot Act is (although it should be). Also, Tony was just an ass for no reason in the comics…but in giving Tony credible motivation for the movie, they put Cap in the position of being morally in the wrong. Which he should NEVER be.
There are two stories in CA:CW. One is about the Sokovia Accords, and the other is about vengeance, pretty much. It’s about the fact that the Winter Soldier killed Tony’s parents, and Cap has somehow known this and not told Tony. The Sokovia Accords is Scarlet Witch’s story, but since female characters don’t get to have stories, it’s used here as a giant misdirection for the audience and the backdrop for the bad guy to pull off his amazingly convoluted plan to set two of the Avengers at each other’s throats.
Swan Lake asks the audience to believe that a human can shapechange into a swan. Everything else is pretty straightforward, following the excellent advice that a story can only have one fantastical element in it. If none of the other rules of physics applied in Swan Lake, it would be surrealist at best, rather than a classic. CA:CW asks the audience to believe all the superhero stuff: a woman can do telekenesis and mind control; a couple guys were given serums that made them super-strong and durable, frozen for 50 years, and are OK now; a man is mind-blowingly rich and flies around in a magic metal suit; several characters have suits or accessories of the magic metal, which breaks every law of physics; a guy can become bug-sized or giant-sized, still be heard when he’s bug-size and not dent the ground when he’s giant-sized, etc.
With all that the rest of the story needs to be plausible. Instead, we’re somehow supposed to believe that there were at least three perfectly positioned and IR-equipped cameras exactly at the spot where Bucky ambushed the Starks. One caught the action from the front of the car, one from the back, and one was just right to get a close-up inside the car. “No witnesses,” say Hyrdra, but man they were great about ensuring the video record.
OK, but even if you give the movie that dumbass premise, we then have to believe that Zemo decrypted all of the Hydra files Black Widow made public, somehow found the video in them when no one else did, and then thought “I know! I will make Iron Man and Captain America fight each other! This will tear the Avengers apart! Somehow that will make up for my loss…and it’s so easy! All I have to do is make sure Iron Man sees this. I’m sure Captain America already knows it, and I’m sure he will act to protect this Hydra assassin, because I’ve seen the first two Captain America movies and I know that Cap’s love for Bucky is stronger than any other relationship he has!”
Having come up with this watertight plan, Zemo does the obvious: he emails Tony.Stark@starkindustries.com, Subject: You need to see this and attaches the mp4 file.
Except no, he doesn’t.
He teaches himself Russian and German (let’s assume he already spoke English and Sokovian), decrypts all the rest of the Hydra and SHIELD stuff on Wikileaks, builds an EMP generator in a closet in a German hostel (or brings it, which might be even harder) during UN meetings he clearly planned for, develops Mission: Impossible-level disguise abilities, makes himself look like the psychologist that he somehow knew would interrogate Bucky after Bucky is apprehended due in part to the interference of Black Panther, which Zemo somehow also knew about. Oh yes, he had previously disguised himself as Bucky in Vienna in order to have the cops go after Bucky. All that under the noses of the JTTF and JSOC, so that’s comforting. In and around this he located former Soviet Hydra agents, out-smarted and out-fought them, located the secret Hydra base in Siberia, dragged Cap, Iron Man, and Bucky to it, killed the Hydra murder squad (because he knew that it wouldn’t be ALL the Avengers coming after his ass), and then played the video there.
Zemo is AMAZING.
He is like 5000 times more competent than any of the Avengers. He should be running Stark Industries. He clearly plans big, and then fucking executes like a boss. And he’s got no superpowers and no bank account.
But we still have the Sokovia Accords. It’s almost possible to believe that people would be so scared of superhumans that they wouldn’t be able to think through “If Scarlet Witch had left the bomb on the ground, many more people would have died,” but I still feel like that was all a giant waste of screen time. Not as much of a waste as the Spiderman stuff, which was a mini-movie, because the Spidey stuff was just clearly a trailer for the next set of Spiderman movies.
It’s possible CA:CW could be recut to actually be about something. Zemo’s right – an empire that falls because it comes apart from internal fighting never returns. Marvel had a chance to talk about the internal fighting in the US, fomented and fed by the media’s control of what people see and when. Zemo chose what the heroes saw and when and led them to conflict, but there was a core of truth that pushed Red Guy and Blue Guy to fight. This could really have worked, but I suspect RDJ didn’t want to be seen as a Trump proxy, and Marvel, a media giant, didn’t want to criticize the media.
Next time, I’ll spend the $100 it cost me to take two kids to this movie on ballet tickets instead.
I think a lot of the negative comments on Carrie Fisher’s appearance in SW:TFA are due to the fact that people aren’t used to seeing a middle-aged woman in a movie. Or, really, in any media. Not only does this movie put a realistic-looking older woman on screen, her character is not a stereotypical “old woman” – she’s a mother, a wife, and a military commander. She is leaning the fuck in.
As any mother knows, you do the best you can. Every kid is born with their own personality, and a child of the Skywalker lineage was going to be non-neuronormative. I’ve always sort of wondered what the mother of the villain feels…there’s probably a certain sense of guilt and responsibility, but maybe also “Well, at least he isn’t mediocre.”
So she no longer rocks the metal slave bikini – Han still loves her. And let’s face it, he’s aged also (plus the scar from the plane crash didn’t help). I believe that these two had a passionate marriage all the way up to having a passionate separation.
Unlike the guys, she’s still fighting. Luke peaced out and went off to hide (which seems weird for him but who knows). Han did the male midlife thing of trying to go back to the things he
did as a youth, and ended up as a Mal Reynolds who couldn’t keep his crew. Chewie (who has aged the best of any of them) probably shrugged at Leia and went to babysit Han and talk him out of the red convertible speedster ship. Leia, OTOH, kicked New Republic ass until they took the First Order threat seriously and then recruited the best pilots and got to work.
So sure, I wish Fisher hadn’t immobilized her face, and I wish the costumers hadn’t dressed her like Nien Nunb – those two decisions were unfortunate together. But she’s wearing the body of a woman who’s had and raised a child, had a marriage, and had a life, and that’s the kind of body we need to see on screen more often.
I broke down and went to see the new Star Wars today.
You know how you once fell in love with someone, and they were gorgeous and sexy and everything they did made your heart beat faster? And for a few years you had a wonderful relationship and you thought it would last forever? You maybe even defined yourself by that relationship. But then they betrayed you. It doesn’t matter how, what matters is that they hurt you so badly it was like having your heart ripped out. You tried to forgive them, but every time you saw their familiar face, or heard their voice, that pain and loss and anger came back. You refined yourself and got on with your life, maybe had kids. Maybe your kids even began to suspect (“how do you know Y-wings are slower than X-wings? What do you mean they require more maintenance? “), but you don’t talk about it. You just try to keep them from similar bad relationships.
And then one day your old flame comes back. They swear that they’ve changed. They’ve gotten into a new, maybe healthier relationship. They’re seeing a life coach. They want to try being friends again. No pressure, maybe just go to the movies together. You want to trust them; they still look good, and you can see all the things you fell in love with the first time. But you just can’t get past the hurt. You put them off. Finally you acquiesce. And it’s fine. They seem good, like their old self. You share a lot of in-jokes, you remember the same things. There is a lot of history there. Maybe the conversation focuses too much on the shared touchpoints, but what else do you have? You’re both a little scared to introduce anything new, because for so long that’s all been bad.
In some ways they are more charming than you remember. Funny, even. They aren’t the most complex or insightful conversationalist, but let’s face it, you never liked them for their brain. You were into them for the thrill, the adventure, their conviction that a person could fight for something bigger than themselves and be a hero.
But even though you enjoyed the date, you realize there’s no way they will ever repair the damage. Things will never be the same between you. Sure, that relationship made you who you are, changed your life. But now, the best you can hope for is to be acquaintances, get back on speaking terms. Maybe see each other once a year. At Christmas. At the movies.
Spoilers from this point on.
I liked it. It’s the movie ROTJ should have been. Rank-ordering the movies, I put it on par with ROTJ, or maybe a little better. (If we include all media, I still think KOTOR is a bit better). It was fun. It was funny. It came perilously close to being a JJ Reboot (but thankfully someone kept him from doing that). It had too much fan service, and some problems. I think it will do the job of passing the torch to the new generation (even if the new generation literally tried to hand the torch back to the old timers at the end of the movie).
And it’s still not good enough to make up for 3.5 awful movies.
I’m trying to view it as a franchise like the Bond films (and Daniel Craig was great in this one). Bond went through a bad phase, but I don’t know that they had 3-4 bed-shitters in a row. I don’t know if you recover from that, even if the next couple movies are fan-fucking-tastic. Even with all the media tie-ins. (Disney, where’s my adult-size Poe jacket?)
They did a lot right in this movie, but you know, it could have been better. There were a couple problems so glaring my 10yo noticed them, and the two biggest problems had really simple fixes.
Problem 1: What’s the First Order? What’s the Resistance? How are they different from the Empire and Rebellion? What’s at stake?
Little kids and most American voters might not care as long as they know which jerseys to root for, but all my family and friends were like “what the hell?” This could have been fixed with one scene, near the start. Similar to the Imperial council scene at the beginning of A New Hope. Have Hux and Kylo Ren talking to the other FO officers and explain what the political situation is. Seriously, one short scene. io9 does it in a paragraph:
When the Rebels won at Endor, they established the New Republic and the Empire continued without a leader. Eventually, after the Battle of Jakku, the Empire gave up and signed a peace treaty, all but ending its reign. The unhappy people from the Empire then began to form what would become the First Order. But it wasn’t until Ben Solo betrayed Luke Skywalker that Leia Organa began to see them as a threat. She formed the Resistance but the New Republic would only back them in secret, presumably not to scare everyone else in the New Republic. And that was all well and good until, as we saw in the movie, the Republic was likely wiped out by Starkiller Base. Without a governing body, who knows what could happen for both the First Order and the Resistance?
Problem 2: Coincidences. The Star Wars movies have always had a level of plot coincidence that makes Dickens look plausible.
Fine, but be aware that that grates on modern audiences. Fix it by one REALLY OBVIOUS line. When Han tells Finn “That’s not the way the Force works” have him see Rey climbing the wall over Finn’s shoulder, chin gesture to her, and say “THAT’s the way the Force works.” Then everyone understands that it’s the Force that’s behind all these coincidences, and show that Han gets it.
This year’s Hugo winners were announced a couple weeks ago. I had friends at the event, and I’ve read or seen most of the nominations of core works. I haven’t explored any of the related works or the fan-created stuff (well, other than occasionally catching Squeecast, but with that many published authors involved it’s hard to say that’s a fan product).
However, the three best, most powerful, most interesting, and most emotionally gripping SF stories I’ve experienced in the last (many) years weren’t on the ballot. There’s not even a slot for them. Two of them were epic projects, involving the level of production of “The Avengers” and one had its roots in a graphic novel that beat the pants off “Saga.” They have characters that you care about, stories that grip you, conflicts you are desperate to see resolved. They have female characters with agency and gravitas. They make you part of the story.
They are Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us, and The Walking Dead (Telltale Games).
They are computer games.
I humbly submit to the Hugo committee that a category be created that will allow these amazing stories to be recognized. It could be Best Other Media. It could be Best Game (I know there are a lot of gamers in the WSFS), which would open it to board / card / dice games as well.
I know there are problems. Bioshock is a FPS, so to “read” that story (you actually live it), you have to be able to play an FPS. The Last of Us is on Playstation only. But there’s really no barrier to playing The Walking Dead – it’s even on iPad.
It just kills me that, especially regarding Bioshock Infinite, an SF story that grapples with real social issues, employs difficult literary mechanisms well, is based on some interesting scientific theories, and is so emotionally powerful, won’t be experienced by the vast majority of people who would love it. I understand that not everyone can play an FPS, and I’d love to pitch Irrational Games about creating a Bioshock RPG, but Ken Levine deserves SF artist recognition as much as Joss Whedon (and you KNOW how much I love Whedon’s work).
At the very least, I encourage the writers and artists competing for Hugos to check out these games and check out your competition.