A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Every once in a while, I come across that rare book that totally absorbs me and the characters linger in my mind for days (sometimes weeks) after I finish it. I love those books and folks, let me tell you, A Head Full of Ghosts did just that.
I rate it 22 out of a possible 25. (see My Book Reviews for rating explanation)
The premise: A Head Full of Ghosts is a bare-knuckle horror story about demonic possession (or more accurately, the potential of it) told from the perspective of a woman whose sister may have been possessed. In a similar vein to Interview With The Vampire (which I didn’t like, but loved the movie), the story is told as an interview years after the event actually occurred. The main character is twenty-five-years-old when she interviewed, but much of the story is told from when she was eight-years-old. Her older sister, Marjorie, displays bizarre (and often creepy) behavior which drives her father’s conclusion that Marjorie is possessed.
There are so many reasons A Head Full Of Ghosts worked for me. To start with, the writing is superb. This was the first novel I’d read by Paul Tremblay, but if his others are written as well as this one, I foresee much enjoyment reading them. Bravo, Paul! We’ll talk more about the writing down in the critique section, but damn, I wish I could write like that.
Another reason this worked – it was such a fantastic story! I know, I know… another demon-possession story of green puke, heads spinning around, weird back-bends, yadda, yadda, yadda…. but folks, I’m telling you, this story is worth reading. For one, the characters are amazing and Tremblay skillfully brings them to life. Two, the imagery is scary. This is one of the few books that actually frightened me! And three, a major part of the story is the Barrett family’s decision to allow their story to be part of a reality TV show. It really worked and gave this one a unique spin.
I don’t know about you, but I often struggle to find a good horror story. Seems like so many of them are marred in vulgarity, or they lack a solid storyline, or they simply don’t end well (or all of the above). Perhaps that’s why I found A Head Full Of Ghosts so refreshing. A horror story I could get behind. It had been so long since I’d found one. Demons, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, monsters… I love them and for me, Paul Tremblay delivered!
Here are my thoughts and ratings on A Head Full of Ghosts.
Craft (5) – As I mentioned above, the craft is superb. In fact, Tremblay’s writing is not complex; he uses basic structures and basic vocabulary. Nothing fancy. Nothing too “writerly”. But his sentences flow flawlessly, there’s no stumbling, no re-reading, and words are placed perfectly, in the right order, so that every thought is conveyed crystal clear. I admire that talent. I seriously covet that ability. From a writer’s perspective, word choice and placement rank at the top of my list when admiring another writer’s talent. When it’s done right, I stop often and savor sentences, especially when that tingle of familiarity hits me where I think, wow, I say that, or I do that, or I think like that. Perhaps we all aim for that connection to our readers.
Pace (4) – I need to explain the “4” because the pacing of the story is fine. So why not a “5”? The story takes place from three perspectives: present day, fifteen years before present day, and through a series of blog snippets. I loved everything but the blog snippets. They pulled me out of the story. I wanted to get back to the characters and what was happening with Marjorie. They didn’t add any value. Much of this story lingered in my mind after reading it, the visuals I got, but nothing in those blog posts remained. This book wasn’t long – clocking in at a whopping 284 pages - I wonder if Tremblay added the blog stuff later as filler, something to get the page count up. Who knows.
Characters (5) – The characters were alive. And when the characters are alive, I believe the story. The biggest strength to this book was how Tremblay brought each and every character to life. Somehow adding in those little details that made each one unique. The little quirks, the mannerisms, and even the way they spoke. If you’re a writer, I highly recommend this book as a lesson on character development alone. Most astonishing was how Tremblay made the eight-year-old Merry so real. My god. I just loved it.
Story (4) – The story was really good. I stop short of spectacular simply because it wasn’t necessarily original (though it was an original take). What made this book so great was the writing and character development. Those two things alone made up for any shortfalls. Here’s the thing about the story – a teenage girl that may be possessed by a demon – we’ve seen that. But in this story, it’s not as blatant or as profane, and in fact, by the time you’re half way through, you start to question what exactly is going on. It has enough originality to keep you hooked and makes for a fun read.
Ending (4) – I’m not sure what a good ending would be for a story like this. There was a point as I drew close to the end where I thought, oh no, it’s going to have a stupid ending, but thankfully, it doesn’t. It ends well for a horror story and by that, I mean it wraps up well. Not an ending where you’re left scratching your head and wondering, okay, so what the hell actually happened. And it leaves just enough mystery that you walk away a little creeped out. Certainly not a happy ending, but a fulfilling one.
Obviously, I liked this book. It’s definitely genre specific, so if you don’t like horror this one may not be for you. But if you’re like me (I’ll read anything, but I’ve always had a draw toward the dark side), you’ll enjoy this one. And, if you’re a writer, you’ll learn a lot reading A Head Full Of Ghosts. Primarily, a great lesson in the effectiveness of simplicity.
Feel free to leave your thoughts. As always, I’d love to hear them.