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Onyx reviews: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 05/15/2015

It is virtually impossible to write a novel about a teenaged girl who claims to be possessed by a demon without invoking Peter Blatty's The Exorcist. Rather than skirting around the edges of the landmark novel, Tremblay embraces a book that clearly influences his own, as well as the many other possession novels and films that came after it. 

The story of the supposed possession of Marjorie Barrett is told in several different ways. First, her younger sister Meredith ("Merry"), now 23, a first-person narrator, is being interviewed 15 years after the fact by a best-selling author who intends to write a book about the experience. They meet in the now-empty family home, which is as infamous as the Amityville Horror house.

Then there are occasional chapters that are written as a blog about The Possession, a reality TV show that documented the Barrett family's problems while they were happening. The blogger is obsessed with the program, dissecting every detail, every second, every occurrence, every assumption about what happened when the cameras were rolling, and when they weren't. Her years of poring over the video and reading accounts of events give the blogger a preternatural insight into the Barrett family.

In other chapters, Merry's narrative recreates the events surrounding a particular episode of The Possession, adding her own commentary to the mix. Before the camera crews arrived at their modest suburban house, the Barretts were in crisis. The patriarch had been out of work for well over a year and the girls' mother was coping by drinking too much wine. The parents had undergone family counseling and the father had rediscovered God. As Merry relates these experiences, she admits that much of her memory has been clouded by urban legends and popular media. How much of what she thinks she remembers has been imprinted upon her by subsequent coverage?

As in the Blatty novel, the big question is whether what happens to Marjorie is the result of teenage hijinx, onset of a psychiatric disorder (induced, perhaps, by stress) or legitimate demonic possession. Her psychiatrist isn't making much progress, and the local priest is only too happy to latch onto the demonic explanation, seeking permission to perform an exorcism. 

To avoid defaulting on their mortgage and to stave off imminent starvation, the girls' father sells their story to a television network. The Barrett family crisis is to become a TV event, culminating in the exorcism. The cameras have unrestricted access to the house and the people who live within it. Some scenes are staged (or at least coached) for better television, and many candid moments are caught as well. Actors are hired to re-enact dramatic scenes that the cameras miss. Merry's story is almost as much about the nature of "reality" TV as about possession.

All through this, the family tries to hold onto each other, even as Marjorie becomes more distant and unpredictable. Little Merry, only eight, struggles to make sense of what's happening. In her memory, at least, she was usually skeptical of her sister's behavior, always accepting any non-supernatural explanations. She's the peace keeper, reaching out to her sister when she's in the dog house and trying to make friends with the production company. The program causes as many new problems for the family as it solves. Neighbors are outraged by perceived blasphemy and schoolmates tease the girls after each episode airs.

A Head Full of Ghosts is chock full of popular culture references, from the obvious possession books and films to Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to Star Trek and Law and Order, to The Shining, George R.R. Martin, Tolkien and J.K. Rowling to Fangoria magazine, to the bizarre, mind-twisting experience that is House of Leaves. It is a self-aware book (a couple of the author's friends are Tuckerized) that takes the subject matter seriously—as well it should, for the subject matter is devastating. Merry hints early on that things don't end well for Marjorie, but she's only scratching the surface.

This creepy, hip, short book is a welcome addition to the sub-genre of possession novels. It is inventive and creative, as Tremblay deftly dances around the various explanations for Marjorie's behavior without taking a stance. Though everyone's focus is on Marjorie, it is Merry who is the book's heart, a precocious and charming eight-year-old, full of energy and zeal and mischief, but finely attuned to the things going on around her. As the older (but still quite young) Merry looks back, she digs into her memories and brings out things that had eluded her before. Though she has spent the years since the exorcism deconstructing and reconstructing what happened, she is now happy to deliver the story into the hands of someone else.

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