Monday, October 12, 2015

A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS :: Paul Tremblay

Lock up your siblings and hide under the covers, this one's a corker. If you're a fan of spooky creepy and/or psychological suspense, Paul Tremblay's A Head Full of Ghosts is your spirit book (no pun intended). The story is told from three perspectives - present day 23-year-old Meredith "Merrie" Barrett sharing the story of her childhood with best-selling author Rachel Neville, flashbacks to the horror that befell the Barrett family fifteen years ago (where we spend most of our time), and mysterious blog posts detailing the events and the reality show that chronicled them. It's a catalog of perspectives, none of which can be counted on as reliable, which only heightens the sense of dread and apprehension Tremblay aptly creates.

The trouble begins at a difficult time. John Barrett has lost his long-time job, and the financial pressures are putting a strain on his marriage as his wife Sarah tries to hold everything together. Fourteen-year-old Marjorie and eight-year-old Merry cope as best they can, Marjorie often setting aside her teenage ways and "closed-door policy" to tell stories to Merry.

But Marjorie's stories begin to turn dark, and her behavior soon follows. She tells Merry "green growing things" are going to take over the world and everyone will die. She claims her possessions rearrange themselves in her room while she sleeps, speaks in voices, and rages about the ghosts she hears in her head, how there are too many and she can't escape them.

It's apparent to everyone Marjorie is having a psychological break. Or is she?

Psychiatry and medication don't help and Marjorie's behavior worsens. It gets louder, scarier, more physical, and more pronounced, along with the family fractures. All the while, Marjorie is giving Merry mixed messages, on one hand claiming she's faking, while on the other hand warning Merry to remember her stories in order to save herself.

I said, "It's okay. But you'll get better, right? Then we'll tell normal stories, like we used to. It'll be fun."
"No. You have to remember the story about the two sisters. You have to remember all my stories because there are - there are all these ghosts filling my head and I'm just trying to get them out, but you have to remember the story about the two sisters especially. Okay? You have to. Please say, 'Okay.'"
Marjorie was just a shadow on the bed. She could've been a pile of blankets, twisted and discarded. I couldn't see her eyes or her spaghetti-sauce-stained chin.
When I didn't answer her, she screamed as though she were being attacked; so loud it lifted my feet off the floor and pushed me backwards.
"Say, 'Okay,' Merry! Say it!"
I didn't. And I ran out of the room.
John begins taking solace in religion; praying for guidance and spending much of his time at the local church. Becoming more and more convinced Marjorie is possessed by an evil spirit, he seeks the counsel of Father Wanderly. At desperate ends financially, the Barretts agree to let The Discovery Channel come into their home and film the family trying to cope with Marjorie's condition, including a planned exorcism.

Things get downright crazypants in the Barrett house, and A House Full of Ghosts grabbed me and held me pretty well captive. Tremblay had me fully engaged and tense as hell trying to get to the resolution, which was a true gut-puncher and turned the book into something special. Tremblay did a fantastic job keeping me guessing, trying to figure out which character's voice to believe, especially when they all seemed a bit off their respective rockers at various times. I doubted Marjorie, I doubted Merry, I doubted everyone. Well done.

There were a few snags. I found the blog posts truly annoying. A decent premise utilized to provide a "third eye" view and recap of the reality show aired during "the troubles," they failed in the execution. Obviously written by an adult (they discuss patriarchy and urtext), they sound like they were written like a tween on speed, mixing in all caps, line outs, childish snark, and cringe-worthy vocabulary like "for realsies." It helped there were only three of them, but one dropped a major plot point (a spoiler, if there can be such a thing within the book being spoiled) as a seeming afterthought.

Adult Merry also had a strange way of communicating that left me a bit cold. I loved Merry as an 8-year-old, but had something of a disconnect with 23-year-old  Merry. Grown Merry uses the term "physical artifacts" when discussing books and muses (three times) over the possibility that she is "conflating" her memories with all of the urban legends, media coverage and pop culture references she's been bombarded with over the years. This disconnect may have been intentional, as Merry is obviously a bit messed up from the events of her childhood and has turned into something of a recluse. My reaction may have been what was intended by the author, but I was sorry for that disconnect.

Overall, I thought A Head Full of Ghosts was a terrific read and a fantastic mix of genres. I don't read much "horror" and a book including an exorcism wouldn't normally be in my wheelhouse. But Tremblay has written a story so full of questions and doubt you're never sure what it's going to turn into and I loved that feeling. While potentially clunky in less able hands, I thought the author handled the mix seamlessly, and this is one of my favorite reads from the first half of the year.

STREET SENSE: If you like scary movies, psychological suspense, potentially unreliable narration, family drama, thrillers and/or sympathetic characters, A Head Full of Ghosts is for you. Doesn't leave many of you out, does it? It's an engrossing page-turner for sure, and will more than likely keep you on the edge of your seat until the end takes the air out of you. While it does likely fit the horror genre, it's not gory horror (though there was one brief tidbit that squicked me a bit, and I'm a tough sell), so not to worry if that's not your thing.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  There was a lot to like about Tremblay's writing and I'm going to pick two, one to give you a flavor for the book and the other just because I love the line:

My cardboard house's outer walls, the windowsill flower boxes, the slate roof, and even the chimney, were scarred with detailed vines and leaves drawn in sharp black outlines and colored in green with Magic Marker. Her growing things choked my house. In the window was a piece of paper with two Richard Scarrey-style cats drawn so they were peering out of the window and at me. The cats were sisters. The bigger sister wore a gray hooded sweatshirt and looked ill, her eyes glassy and droopy lidded. The little sister was wide-eyed, determined, and had glasses on.
I got out of bed quickly and didn't wake Mom. I plucked the picture out of the window. Written on the bottom was the following:

There's nothing wrong with me, Merry. Only my bones want to
grow through my skin like the growing things and pierce the world.

* * *

"I won't, sweetie. I promise" Her promise wasn't a real one. It was simply the dot at the end of her sentence.

COVER NERD SAYS: This cover did a lot to win me over, including the fact that it took me a minute to figure it out. Once I did, there was no way I wasn't reading the book. I love the image and the palette, but most of all I love the rotation, which is something I haven't seen very often. Very well done.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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