William Morrow, 2015, 286 pages
The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when 14-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.
To her parents' despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie's descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts' plight. With John, Marjorie's father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.
Fifteen years later a best-selling writer interviews Marjorie's younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long-ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface - and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.
A Head Full of Ghosts does homage to (and name checks, over and over again) William Blatty's novel-turned-blockbuster, The Exorcist. But whereas in Blatty's novel and the movie, there was no ambiguity about whether or not there were supernatural forces involved, in this book Marjorie is probably just a troubled teen suffering from schizophrenia...though the author tries to slip in enough doubt to keep us wondering until the end.
The story is narrated by Marjorie's little sister, Merry, eight years old at the time of the horrific events described, now telling her story fifteen years later to a writer who intends to write a book about her. Merry and Marjorie's parents, the Barretts, were a typical middle-class suburban family fallen on hard times. Mr. Barrett had been laid off and unable to find work in over a year; they were about to lose their house, and now they had a troubled teen daughter who needed professional help for what appeared to be the onset of severe mental illness. Then dad finds religion and takes Marjorie back to church, where a priest becomes convinced that Marjorie is, in fact, demon-possessed. Somehow a television production company is brought in, offering the Barretts a Devil's bargain (heh) — let them film the family, and Marjorie's exorcism, as part of a reality TV show. The money they're offering will save the Barretts' home, at a time when they're down to living on cheap mac and cheese most nights of the week. One can understand why they'd take the deal, and at the same time despise the parents (and especially Mr. Barrett, whose idea this principally was) for doing so.
Segueing between Merry's fallible and unreliable perception of events as an eight-year-old and how she sees things years later allows the story to keep the listener guessing about Marjorie — is she really sick, or is she just faking her vomit and masturbation and self-harming episodes for perverse reasons? Or is she actually possessed by a demon? Poor Merry is kept guessing as well, not fully understanding what's going on. Head Full of Ghosts doesn't really say anything profound about the media or fame-seeking; if it has a message, it's about how a nuclear family can collapse under economic and psychological strain. In this case, it's teenage Marjorie who breaks first.... or is it?
While we know from the hints dropped earlier in the narrative that Merry and Marjorie's story does not have a happy ending, the big twist at the end delivers a decent punch to the gut, while also introducing just a little bit more uncertainty about who the unreliable narrator is. Despite having the trappings of a horror novel — complete with a "horror blogger" who bears an obviously deliberate resemblance to a certain popular Goodreads reviewer (pander much, Mr. Tremblay?) — this is really a psychological thriller. But it's got your horror references, your Lovecraft shout-outs, and your icky bodily fluids.
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