Book Review: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

“The beauty of A Head Full of Ghosts is that there are a number of possible interpretations of the events and that the conclusions drawn by one reader may be very different to those drawn by another.”

headfullofghostsThose of a certain age will remember a brilliant, unnerving live television event that was broadcast by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) on Halloween 1982 called Ghostwatch in which a team of paranormal investigators set up shop in an allegedly haunted house to see if the claims of poltergeist activity were genuine. They did indeed make contact with a malevolent ghost called Pipes who had been inadvertently summoned by effectively turning the live event into a nationwide séance, and a generation of television viewers were traumatised by a well thought out drama on a scale that hadn’t been witnessed since Orson Welles had convinced America that the Martians had landed almost 44 years to the day previously. (Welles’ Mercury Theatre production of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds was broadcast on October 30 1938).

Created by writer Stephen Volk, Ghostwatch was originally conceived as a six part television series in which a paranormal investigator and a television reporter would have slowly revealed the source of poltergeist activity on a North London housing estate, and it’s this concept that forms the backbone of Paul Tremblay’s new novel A Head Full of Ghosts. Rather than simply recycling the well-worn supernatural possession tales that we’re all overly familiar with, though, Tremblay takes a leaf out of Scream’s book and happily references films like The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity, as well as the audience manipulating mechanics of reality television shows, to create an informed and entertaining work of metafiction that genre fans will find eminently satisfying.

The book begins with twenty-three year old Meredith ‘Merry’ Barrett returning to the house where fifteen years earlier her older sister Marjorie had been the subject of a six part reality television show called The Possession. The show had documented Marjorie’s apparent possession by a demon, and now Merry is being interviewed by a bestselling author to tell her side of the story, but as she recalls the events that she witnessed as an eight year old, her memories of what happened begin to clash with those documented by the broadcast version, and the reader finds themselves wondering which version of the truth is in fact the correct one.

Tremblay is very clever, though, in that he not only plays with the question of memory and reality by way of Merry’s present day recollections as she speaks with the author, he also gives an account of the events as they happen from the perspective of eight year old Merry as she experiences them, before throwing another conflicting voice into the mix in the form of a cynical blogger called Karen Brissette (aka The Last Girl Online) who picks the entire show apart while referencing the very influences that the author has drawn upon to create A Head Full of Ghosts.

This all has the effect of putting doubts in the reader’s mind as to whether Merry’s recollections are completely accurate, whether the edited reality television version of the truth is reliable, or indeed whether Marjorie was in fact possessed or just a psychologically troubled teenager. The beauty of A Head Full of Ghosts is that there are a number of possible interpretations of the events and that the conclusions drawn by one reader may be very different to those drawn by another.

One thing is certain, though, A Head Full of Ghosts is a masterfully written book that will certainly appeal to horror fans, and which deserves to find a wider audience among lovers of thought-provoking fiction across the entire literary spectrum.


Second opinion

A Head Full of Ghosts is one of the best novels released this year. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of exorcisms in pop culture, nods towards Stephen Graham Jones and an array of narrative styles, Paul Tremblay confirms what we already knew: he’s one of the greatest horror writers today. Pre-order immediately!


Publisher: William Morrow and Company
Hardcover (304pp)
Release Date: 2 June 2015

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