Ghosts tend to be on my mind in the autumn. Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, however, has been on my reading list for quite some time. As a novel about possession, it has some scary moments, but it’s difficult to compete against The Exorcist in that regard. Tremblay handles the topic with an ambiguity worthy of Shirley Jackson, however, and there are a few clear nods to her work here. At the risk of giving out spoilers (you have been warned!) although it’s pretty clear by the end that much of the demonic was a cry for attention, the family member behind the tragedy is clearly left obscure. We find out whodunit, but we’re left unsure as to the real reason behind it.
For fear of giving away too much (although my Goodreads assessment might be guilty of this), I’d like to consider something that I address in Nightmares with the Bible. Demonic possession is largely coded as a feminine phenomenon. The reasons for this are likely complex, but they are clearly related to the idea behind witch hunts and fear of women’s power in “a man’s world.” Possession narratives, while they predated William Peter Blatty, became an essential part of the revived interest in demons brought on by The Exorcist. Tremblay’s story is clearly aware of this, as he has his characters citing both fiction and non-fictional treatments of the topic. Since researching the subject on my own, I’ve been wondering if anyone else has been able to handle it as deftly as Blatty did, and although Tremblay has two girls under threat, the question of whether it’s real or not tends to outweigh the pathos of believing Marjorie really has a demon.
In the end, it seems as if her father might be the real source of the family’s haunting. An unemployed man looking for a way to support his family, he turns to religion. This scenario is all-too-real to life. And religion gives us not only a rationale for demons, but also a solution in the form of procedures and proper responses. There are priests here—the males who alone can deliver the females—but whereas Blatty clearly made them the target of a demon that was pretty obviously real, Tremblay doesn’t play that card. The priests come and go, and deliverance takes a form not expected for such a narrative. A Head Full of Ghosts raises lots of questions and, like all good fiction, leaves us pondering at the end. There’s still time to read it this coming fall.