Lately, I’ve written a number of straight reviews. I’m bored with that, so for A Head Full of Ghosts, let’s do something different. Spoilers galore, by the way, so if you haven’t read the book, you might want to do that first.
It took me a while to read Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. When I picked it up the first time, I got to Chapter Two—the first blog post—and put it right back down. Recently, I tried again, and I’m glad I did. It’s not a perfect book. The treatment of religion borders on cliché, and the blog posts are full of the kind of psycho-babble social commentary you might find on your least favorite Twitter feed, but these are minor quibbles. A Head Full of Ghosts is a page-turner that makes you think and keeps you guessing. With that in mind, I’ve posed some questions below with my take on the answers. Looking forward to your comments. And as I said, spoilers. SPOILERS. (4.5 stars, by the way.)
- Is Merry really the one possessed?
I’ll start here, just because it’s the first thing you wonder after you close the book, based on the last couple of pages. I also feel quite confident in saying that the answer is no. Tremblay’s denouement is a nice trick, just like the one at the end of Inception (I also feel quite confident in saying that two seconds after the fade to black in that movie the top falls over, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that he no longer cares what is real and what isn’t because he has the life he wants. It’s deep, man, and everyone missed it trying to decide what the answer was to the question that didn’t matter. But I digress.) It’s just a trick, though. The coffee guy all but says the heat is broken. It’s not Merry’s demon suddenly stealing all the heat. And other than the last few pages, I can think of no other evidence in the book for Merry’s possession. So let’s let this one go.
- Was the father planning on murdering the family?
I also feel pretty confident in saying that the answer here is no. As Merry suggests, her father was intending on cleaning the pewter cross, something that potassium cyanide is quite good at. If I’m right about that, then Marjorie is simply manipulating Merry into helping her murder the family she now hates while sparing the sister that she still loves. It’s possible that in Marjorie’s paranoia she also thinks her father is trying to kill them all, but I don’t buy the idea that she doesn’t know the consequences of her own actions. She’s made a decisive choice to end things. The exorcism didn’t work to help her and in the process she lost whatever trust and affection she had left for her mother and father. This also has the side-benefit of a nice tie in between Merry and what I assume is her namesake—Merricat Blackwood from We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Now, it’s possible I am wrong here. The emails between the crazy church leader and the father certainly indicate a plan for mass suicide. Moreover, if the father were simply buying the poison to clean the cross, it’s unclear why it would be so difficult for the police to track the purchase. More ambiguity from Tremblay and his unreliable narrator.
- What is really wrong with Marjorie?
Some might think this is the central question of the book. I’m not convinced. To a large extent, it doesn’t matter what’s wrong with Marjorie. The book is really about the breakdown of a family, a scathing critique of reality TV culture, and an analysis of how desperation and greed can combine to create a horror far more terrifying than the supernatural.
But that doesn’t stop me from wondering what is going on with Marjorie.
Every time I think Tremblay is signaling that there is no demon and that Marjorie isn’t possessed, something happens to change my mind. Let’s get one thing clear from the start—she’s not faking it. The most likely explanation—and I’m no psychologist so don’t @ me bro—is that she is suffering from schizophrenia with associated paranoid delusions. Marjorie’s symptoms line up perfectly with that diagnosis, and the onset in early adulthood fits with the disease. The voices, the belief that thoughts and experiences are inserted into the mind by others, a marked change in personality, etc., etc., would seem to make the diagnosis pretty straightforward. Which leads me to my next question…
- Why, exactly, are we performing an exorcism?
This relates to my earlier comment about the way religion is treated in the book. There’s an implication at some point in the story that the local priest is somehow benefiting from the television show which presumably would not exist without the exorcism itself. But it’s never fleshed out and I don’t find it particularly believable. Moreover, a priest can’t just decide to do an exorcism. The bishop has to approve. This is glossed over in the book and there’s a chapter where a doctor, Dr. Navidson in a hat-tip to House of Leaves, examines Marjorie in order to provide evidence supporting the exorcism. He doesn’t find a whole lot. All we really have is Marjorie turning into a chatty Cathy, revealing evidence that she easily could have garnered from the internet. Compare this to The Exorcist, where the demon-possessed victim levitates, speaks Latin and Greek, reads the priest’s mind, and he still isn’t convinced she’s possessed. The book is probably based on the case of Anneliese Michel, but even there they had far more evidence to go on than we have here.
- Is this book really just about reality television and what it says about our culture?
Criticisms of how the book handles religion aside, it’s spot on in the way it addresses our reality TV culture. Just think about what is going on here—we have a girl, a mere child, suffering a severe mental breakdown to the point of harming herself and threatening her family and instead of giving her medical treatment the mom and dad have agreed to film the whole thing with an entertainment company agreeing to go along with it. And of course, it’s a huge hit. The central line in the book by my reckoning is when a now adult Merry is asked by the author writing her story how she can watch horror movies about exorcisms, given that they are more horrific than what actually happened to her. She replies, “What does that say about you or anyone else that my sister’s nationally televised psychotic break and descent into schizophrenia wasn’t horrific enough?”
Now you may be saying—it’s just a book. It’s not real. Bless you if you think it couldn’t be real, though. If you think we wouldn’t watch. And bless you if there’s not a part of you, buried deep back there in your brain, that doesn’t wish you could watch this very reality television show, that doesn’t wish it were real after all.
That’s the true horror, my friend.
5 responses to “Let’s Talk A Head Full of Ghosts”
I realize I am very late to the party, but I just read this (well, listened to it on audio), and I find myself agreeing with much of what you wrote here. To add my two cents, though: I think the fact that the conversation with Marjorie that leads to the exorcism should definitely NOT have led to an exorcism is absolutely intentional: nobody cares, and everyone has already decided that they are to go forward. The “doctor” is there just for show. It seems the priest is just itching to do one of these, and clearly religion is vilified here and not much distinction is made between the protestors and the priest himself. If I remember correctly, in the blog section of the novel, the absurdity of the questioning resulting in an exorcism is addressed directly (something about hitting you over the head with the patriarchy). And while I don’t think that Merry is possessed, and it’s just as you said, a nice bit of ambiguity added, I think there are some suggestions along the way that this may be where the book would eventually go. There is a point, I think during the exorcism, where Merry (? or someone else?) wonders whether the demon would pass into another person once expelled. In that case, the demon would have possibly passed into her as Marjorie jumps and levitates, leaving Merry responsible for the poisonings (she is, after all, an unreliable narrator). This would also be the reason why Marjorie (actually, the demon) demands that Merry be present for the exorcism.
I wonder at the alternative memory she has about her aunt. I can’t figure out the point of that.
Anyway, I enjoyed your post! Thanks for taking the time to let us know how you read the ambiguous parts.
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Really good analysis. I just finished the paperback. I almost put this one down when the blog posts. I’m very glad I kept going until the end, but by that point I was already hooked.
Ironically, it’s the blog posts that sell the Merry is possessed theory – she claims to Rachel that she believes everything she’s written in her blog under the pseudonym, only later to flat out admit to Rachel that she knows her father did not poison the entire family (despite the fact that she says otherwise in the blog posts).
This admission throws everything else from her blog into question, including her down-with-the-patriarchy rants against her father, which is a very clever bait and switch for the reader. Did the mother actually not tie her down? And if she did – why lie about it in the blog? Who (or What) benefits from the lie?
What this story really is, in my opinion, is what would have happened to the MacNeils in Blatty’s ‘The Exorcist’ if there weren’t any good people to fight against the demon? What if Father Karras and Father Merrin cared more about taking advantage of a family’s misfortune and getting rich and famous via a reality TV scam instead of keeping the faith? Sadly, this interpretation seems closer to what would probably happen in modern times (if a demon really did possess a child).
The bloody final ritual brings to mind a passage in the New Testament of the Seven Sons of Sceva from the book of Acts who try to exorcise a possessed person, but they were frauds, and the demon ends up overpowering them to the point where they are forced to flee naked and bloody (awful familiar story).
So, unless I’m completely nuts, this story is a very well told reinterpretation of that tale, an answer to Blatty’s pro-Catholic ‘The Exorcist’ (what if there were no good Catholics, or at least what if they got a greed priest instead of an honest one), and a comment on the correlation between broken American families and a greedy, powerless church, all told in a way that keeps the reader guessing until the end.
All in all – this was a damn unsettling book.
Maybe I’m completely off about my theories, but these are immediate first impressions after reading the last page 20 minutes ago. Anywho – good stuff and Happy New Year
I really enjoyed this review, thank you!