A Head Full of Ghosts is literary catnip: a modern possession that turned into a reality TV show? A modern possession that might not be possession at all?? Catholicism???
But like all great horror stories, it ends up being about human emotions more than anything, with, yes, an element of incisive class commentary, and, even better, an ongoing conversation with both The Exorcist and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
When Meredith Barrett was eight, her big sister Marjorie… changed. Was it hormones ravaging the just-turned-14-year-old? A serious medical condition? Demonic possession? The family cycles through each possibility, with their Catholic-revert dad insisting it’s the latter, while their skeptical mom isn’t so sure. But a priest is called in as a literal hail mary, and at some point, a reality TV show about the possible possession comes into being.
You see, dad’s been out of work for nearly two years. Mom’s job at the bank isn’t covering everything. Something has to give—and the Discovery Channel’s offering them a lot of money to tell their family’s story. Reality show it is, and now the basement has a whole wall of name-brand snacks and juice boxes, and the mortgage is OK for now, and all they have to do is film Marjorie’s exorcism for a breathless TV viewership. And if Father Wanderley lands the Church some good publicity by helping a family in need, that’s just gravy.
There are so many ways to make deals with the devil.
And what of Marjorie?
Is she ill or possessed? Or is she faking everything for the sake of the show?
A Head Full of Ghosts commits to being a modernization of the exorcism plot in a couple of really cool ways. It walks a knife’s edge of “is this illness, supernatural event, or fraud” in almost every scene at the Barrett’s house. Tremblay’s favorite move, which I love, is to give us a scene that, in a standard horror novel, would be a terrifying supernatural act. He lets the reader sit with the expected rush of fear. Then his characters gradually unpack what just happened and show the reader (or the reader’s stand-in, 8-year-old Merry) exactly how the supernatural act can be explained with logic.
The thing I found fascinating, and kind of hilarious, was that it worked on me every time. Even as I was picking the scenes apart preemptively, I still wanted to be scared. “Well, maybe this one’s supernatural”, I would say as I read. Or “Oh, here it is, the turn into actual possession”—and yet there was always a rational explanation.
Except for the couple of times when there wasn’t.
That’s one of the other great things—Tremblay dots a few instances of pure uncanniness over the course of the book, so I was never able to fully relax into the idea that there were no demons lurking, which meant the read experience never became a pure “is it mental illness or is it fraud” math equation.
Now the other brilliant thing is that he’s commenting on exorcism stories as a subgenre. First in the main plot of the book, and the events at the Barrett home. But also via a blogger named Karen Brissette, who is revisiting the now-classic reality show The Possession 15 years in the future. She picks apart the tropes and references, and mocks moments that go over the top in their homage to the classic horror film. But more substantially, she critiques The Possession for framing itself as a tale of American patriarchy doing its best to defend the family from evil. She outlines the ways the show presents John Barnett as heroic, despite allowing his daughter to go through an exorcism rather than sending her to a hospital. She talks about how the mom, Sarah, is cast as the Doubting Thomas, and how the threat is against the just-hitting puberty eldest daughter, with the idea that it could spread to the still-innocent younger daughter hovering in the background. The show casts Marjorie’s possession as a symbol of the collapse of the American economy, family values, social structure—all in the ways that a lot of Discovery “reality” TV shows do actually push a let’s-get-back-to-American-values-whatever-the-hell-that-means vibe. Karen Brissette also critiques The Exorcist itself as the rare horror film to go all-in on a conservative viewpoint: atheism and feminism are BAD, and the Catholic Church is GOOD.
And what’s funny about that to me, particularly, is that I, too, wrote a whole essay meditating on the very themes Karen Brissette analyses, when I wrote about the (excellent) TV spinoff of The Exorcist. And I have to admit…well, here’s Karen writing about The Exorcist:
…[I]t wasn’t the power of Christ that compelled you, but gore, baby, gore! You *Karen wags her finger* shouldn’t be surprised that the lukewarm parade of PG-13 possession movies of the 2000s never came close to approaching the critical or popular successes of The Exorcist. The Exorcist was a wildly popular event horror film, and one that, unlike its politically progressive/transgressive, indie counterparts (Night of the Living Dead, Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), just happened to be one of the most conservative horror movies ever. Good vs. evil! Yay, good! The pure, pristine little white girl saved by white men and religion! Yay, white men and religion! All you need is love faith! The triumphant return of the status quo! Family value! Heroic middle-classers battling a foreign boogeyman (the demon Pazuzu was literally a brown-skinned foreigner first glimpsed by Father Merrin in the movies opening in Iraq)!
That’s, uhhh, a pretty accurate take on Pop Culture Writer Voice there! I feel called out
ashamed like hiding under a dining table seen?
I was overjoyed to learn that Tremblay first developed the idea of the modern-day exorcist plot because he was so taken with a book of critical essays about The Exorcist, first, it’s such a fun jumping-off point for a book, but also because I love work that’s in conversation with The Exorcist, and it’s fascinating to read a work where all the characters have a shared reference point when they think their family member might be possessed.
But having a story like this in a book is extra fun for the horror-addled brain, because each time Tremblay references a classic scene my brain flipped through the scene itself, my reactions to it at different points in my life, and then when I’d get to Karen Brissette’s analysis I’d find her making some of the points I just made to myself a few pages back. I love it when reading a book feels like a conversation.
The other obvious classic horror touchstone for the story is We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Our narrator’s name is Merry, and a lot of the story focuses on the secret world of two sisters who are trying to hold their family together, no matter the cost. You could even view the TV crew as the interlopers who are trying to change Merry’s relationship with Marjorie, à la Cousin Charles trying to drive a wedge between Merricat and Constance.
And in addition to those biggies, this book is full of excellent Spot the Reference moments, and even a dip into one character’s media collection that left me giggling in delight. The novel opens with now-23-year-old Merry talking to best-selling novelist Rachel Neville, who wants to write a non-fiction book about the Barretts. We quickly learn that about 15 years have passed since the TV show, and that the fallout from Marjorie’s illness (whatever it was), the show, and the show’s popularity have reverberated through Merry’s life.
She shows her media collection to best-selling novelist Rachel Neville, who stares in shock at bookcases that include The Exorcist and its four sequels and prequels; The Conjuring; The Exorcism of Emily Rose; The Amityville Horror; The Legend of Hell House; The Exorcist: Studies in the Horror Film; American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty; a bunch of other exorcist-related stuff. (I’ll admit I wrote a few of these down to add to my TBR/W.)
When I’m done reading titles, Rachel asks, “Forgive the potentially obvious question, but have you actually seen all thee movies and read all these books?”
“Yes. Well, yes for this section, anyway. I can’t say I’ve read or seen everything in every bookcase.”
“I have to admit, Merry, I find it shocking that you would collect all these”—Rachel pauses to wave her hand at the bookcase—“titles”.
“Shocking? Really? I don’t know, you could say I have a personal interest in the subject matter.”
This scene jumped out at me like a subliminal demon face, because most people I know cope with trauma in this way, and a lot of people do not understand that. Diving into horror novels, true crime podcasts, SVU marathons—it’s not just a way of taking control of the narrative, it’s also just a way to process violence, helplessness, madness, whatever it is. For Merry, watching every permutation of an exorcist plot helps her re-live what was done to her sister in a safe way, and allows her adult brain to understand what’s going on in a way that her 8-year-old brain couldn’t. And I loved best-selling novelist Rachel Neville’s response, because that’s pretty close to the reaction that my friends and I used to get from Concerned Adults when we’d wallow in horror.
But there are times when you need horror, you know?
And it was weirdly affirming to read a book where a character who witnessed an exorcism then did exactly what I think I’d do if I had a similar experience, and then had to deal with the response of someone who simply doesn’t get it, and probably won’t, no matter how many explanations are offered.
I loved that this book told a horrific story of parental neglect and cultural abuse, wrapped in a classic exorcism story, and then took the extra step of commenting on its own story and the draw of horror. But even more than that I love that this book asks why we need the horror to be somehow worse than it is. As I read the book I scoured the scene for evidence of the supernatural, and a lot of what’s stuck with me are precisely those moments that hint toward the demonic. But again, why do I need that? Faced with the horror of a desperately ill child, why do I demand the devil, too?