Saturday, October 01, 2016

Head Full of Ghosts (Paul Tremblay)

I start too many blog posts with the phrase "it's been a long time," but the fact remains that I haven't blogged in a long time. In another month I will be officially finished with my doctorate, so perhaps I can get back to some more posting, and more book reviews in between academic papers, the novel I'm trying to publish, my day job, and my part-time job teaching 70 students and grading their papers. It will be a question of time management and energy.

I did manage to take some time to read Paul Tremblay's recent novel "Head Full of Ghosts." I haven't read Tremblay's previous novels, but this one came with two very separate and enthusiastic recommendations from a couple of Facebook friends; I know one of them from high school and met the other during John Foxx's tour in 2011. The synopsis of the book promised a psychological thriller written from different points of view, and I find this immediately intriguing. I love well-crafted psychological horror.

"Head Full of Ghosts" promised something involved and complex that left you uncertain about the reality of events, and it did not disappoint in any way. The story is told from the perspective of Meredith Barrett, know as "Merry." The story is about her family--her parents, John and Sarah, and her sister Marjorie. When Marjorie starts to exhibit strange psychological symptoms, she is first taken to a psychiatrist, but then her unemployed father, who has "found religion," asks a Catholic priest called Father Weatherly for advice, and we are then led to believe that Marjorie is possessed by a demon. The family is in desperate financial straits, and when they end up being approached about doing a reality TV show about Marjorie's "possession," they agree to do it. John wants us to believe that his motivation is to make Marjorie better; Sarah admits that she mainly agreed to it because of the money involved, though she wants to believe it will help. She does not believe her daughter is possessed. There is a twist ending that I won't reveal here--you only get hints throughout the novel that Merry is somehow the only one who has survived the reality TV ordeal.

I am teaching Mythology again this semester, and one of the points I stressed in my opening lectures was the importance of narrative, and the ways in which we run on a script, never aware of our own stories. Our only contact with the rich world of the collective unconscious is through dreams, fantasies, and crises--including psychological breakdowns or psychoses. The stories we are drawn to tell us something about our unconscious state. In the first part of Tremblay's novel, Marjorie tells stories to Merry. Marjorie writes and draws in Merry's Richard Scarry book, with its town of animals, even though Merry is too old for Richard Scarry at the age of eight. Merry likes the stories, because they always have happy endings. But then Marjorie begins to tell darker stories, and if you read a lot of Jung, you realize immediately that she is slipping into a kind of schizoid state. The first story is about a flood of molasses that leaves everyone in the town "stuck"; the second is about vines that grow up through the basement and take over the house. Primal consciousness is devouring the personality, and leaving Marjorie "stuck." Merry runs into Marjorie in the basement early in the filming process of the show. Marjorie confides in her that she is not demon-possessed, that she's just playing along. But then she says (and I'm paraphrasing) "I'm not possessed by a demon. I'm possessed by ideas." These are the voices she hears in her head. And I thought, BINGO. Beautifully written, and dead-on accurate. This is not a demon, this is being taken over by "elementary ideas"--the archetypes. There is something Dionysian about her dream of vines.

As the novel progresses, the reader is left uncertain about whether or not Marjorie really IS possessed, though the decided tone of Merry's narrative makes you skeptical of the whole operation. There is definitely a sexist element to the whole thing, as Marjorie "could not possibly" know certain things as a fourteen-year-old girl, things that she certainly could know if she applied herself. When they give their litany of evidence, Sarah tells them that of course Marjorie knows those things--she's smart, and she reads. There is a hat-tip to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper," which is explicitly mentioned in some places. The attempts of the men in the story to reign in Marjorie's intellect and strength just leads to more disaster.

By the end of the novel, the reader is questioning the sanity of all the characters--the parents, certainly, but also Merry. When I finished the book, I had some clues early on that she also might not be "quite right," and that the trauma she suffered with her family made an existing problem worse. I'll refrain from saying any more about the outcome; I encourage you to read the book yourself.

The style of the book reminds me of Danielewski's "House of Leaves", though not as chaotic. The narrative is told through interview with Merry, Merry's first person recollections, and Merry's horror movie blog which she writes under a pseudonym. The pieces of the narrative are fed slowly to the reader, as you jump from one perspective of the situation to another, and it's very well-crafted.