Short Take: Haunting.
Have you ever read a book that feels like it’s so much MORE? You know? Like, House of Leaves is the most obvious example. Or The Blind Assassin. You know, where there are stories within stories, and while the top layer is deceptively simple, once you go all the way through to the center, there’s just…. more. (Insert your own “it’s just like life” analogy here.)
A Head Full of Ghosts is the same way. It’s actually a pretty simple story when you look at it from the outside: a teenage girl (Marjorie Barrett) shows signs of extreme mental illness, but also something more sinister – possibly demonic possession. Her parents, John and Sarah are desperate. Besides the horrific things that Marjorie is experiencing, John has lost his job, and stay-at-home-mom Sarah can only stretch things so far. With Marjorie’s medical bills growing rapidly, they agree to let a reality TV crew film an extreme attempt to save Marjorie: an exorcism.
Along for the ride is eight-year-old Meredith (Merry). The majority of the story is told through a dual perspective of eight-year-old Merry, who doesn’t understand everything she’s seeing, but sure sees a whole lot of it, and 23-year-old Merry, who is trying to come to peace with everything that happened by telling the story to an author writing a book on the now-famous case. We get the rest of it from a blogger who recaps the tv show, and adds her own thoughts and comparisons to other pop-culture phenomena.
I seriously can not say enough good things about the way the various forms of modern storytelling are reflected in this book. Face it, most stories (even modern day ones, even really good ones) are the equivalent of the cavemen sitting around the fire, and saying this happened, then that happened. Even when we get different perspectives, we don’t really get the layers of storytelling that the digital age has afforded us. It’s why reading a book is different than reading a blog or social media which is different than watching TV or going to a movie. Paul Tremblay managed to capture the feel of multiple mediums into a book, and I have to tip my metaphorical hat to him.
And Merry. Although both older Merry and the blogger (Karen) are cyphers, eight year old Merry is one of the most amazingly written children I’ve ever come across. She’s smart but not annoyingly precocious. She is well-behaved for the most part, but not perfect. Her thought processes, her quirks, the “goon dance”, so many little things make you feel like you’re seeing a real, living, breathing child. Even Stephen King would have a hard time writing a character as good as Merry. (Yeah, I said it. COME AT ME BRO.)
I loved, loved, LOVED so many things about this book. But I can’t quite reconcile the ending. It’s a twist, for sure, and kind of a shocker, but the seeds were always there. It has the feeling of inevitability, which is how I tend to define a “good” ending; that is, it felt like a natural progression to the rest of the story.
But there was still a fair amount of ambiguity. The “what” was pretty clearly covered, but I still didn’t entirely understand the “why” of it. Also, there were a couple of revelations that had me calling into question a lot of really important aspects of the story that I had accepted as “true”. Usually, this kind of thing annoys me. Either it feels too unnatural in the context of the rest of story, tacked-on just for effect, or it makes me feel like I only got to read half of a story, and I’ve been cheated somehow.
Paul Tremblay somehow managed to find the sweet spot, where I feel like I’m still missing some important pieces, but I’m OK with that, because this author knows how to make the journey itself delicious.
The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a plate of pasta, hold the sauce.)