• Ian Kirkpatrick

Book Review: “A Head Full of Ghosts” by Paul Tremblay

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

I just put down Paul Tremblay’s book “A Head Full of Ghosts” and now I’ve got a head full of thoughts I think need to be shared on this… work. From the hundreds of four and five-star reviews and the glowing words from Stephen King, you’d think this book would be pretty good, wouldn’t you? It wasn’t. By the end of the first blog post, within the first twenty pages, I knew just about everything about the book and its author. I read on and it pretty much what I thought it’d be.

Here’s the book synopsis from Amazon:

The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts’ plight. With John, Marjorie’s father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show, and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.

Sounds pretty good, right? Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the best thing you’re going to read from the story. The title of the book sounds great too, but everything between the covers is a monstrous letdown.

Let’s talk story structure first. This book opens up with Merry, the main character, meeting with Rachael, a reporter, to talk about her experiences during the television show The Possession and what she actually remembered happening to her as a child. Then after a brief chapter of character introductions of, “Hi, Rachael,” and “Oh, hi Merry,” we get this “blog” post from Karen. The blog post was one of the most telling things about the book and the author, and I don’t mean this in a good way. What the blog post goes on to do for about ten pages is give us a summary of what happened in the first chapter (the meeting with Merry) and then a summary of the ups and downs of the television show we are about to experience. This is our first introduction to Merry’s family and it’s through the lens of what I can only assume is a millennial girl who wishes she worked for GQ. This was one of the first places I began to question the author’s intentions with his story and his political views.

In his lines there seemed to be your typical progressive hatred of the American working class, men, families, and of course, capitalism. Can’t have modern progressivism without a hint of Marxist communism! Here were the tip-offs:

The Discovery Channel bet big on The Possession, though at first glance it didn’t exactly fit the redneck mold. The show was set (yes, I’m using the word set as I’m treating the show like fiction, and that’s because it was, like all the other reality TV, fiction. Duh.) in the well-to-do suburb Beverly, Massachusetts. Too bad the Barret family didn’t conveniently live in the town next door, Salem, where, you know, they burned all them witches back in ye olde days. I hereby request the sequel be made and set in Salem, please! I kid, but they might as well have set The Possession in a town that infamously tortured “improper” young women to death, right? But I digress… So, yeah, at first glance, the show had no rednecks, no backwaters, no ponds with snapping turtles, no down-home, folksy wisdom, or dudes in giant beards and overalls. The Barretts were a stereotypically middle-class family at a time when the middle class was rapidly disappearing. Their fading middle classness was a huge part of the show’s appeal to blue-collar folks and the down-and-outers. So many Americans thought and continue to think they’re middle class even when they’re not, and they are desperate to belief in the middle class and the values of bourgeois capitalism. So here came this 1980s sitcom-esque family (think Family Ties, Who’s the Boss? Growing Pains) who were under siege from outside forces (both real and fictional), and where The Possession nailed that blue-collar sweet spot was with John Barrett, an unemployed father in his early forties. The family’s financial situation, like so many other folks, was in the shitter, shall we say. Barrett worked or the toy manufacturer Barter Brothers for nineteen years but was laid off after Hasbro bought out the company and closed down the eighty-year-old factory in Salem. (Salem again! Where are all the witches at?) John wasn’t college educated and had worked at the factory since he was nineteen, starting out on the assembly lines, then working his way up through the place, climbing that toy ladder until he was finally in charge of the mail room. He’d received thirty-eight weeks of severance pay for his double-decade of servitude, which he’d managed to stretch out into a year and a half of living wage. Here was only so much stretching the Barretts could do to maintain two daughters and a big house and real estate tax bill and all the hope and promise and yearning that came with the middle-class lifestyle. The pilot episode opens with John’s tale of woe. What a brilliant choice by the writers/producers/show-sters! Opening with one of the many supposed possession-reenactments would’ve been too cliche, and frankly, too goofy. Instead they gave us grainy black-and-white photos of John’s old factory in its days of prosperity, photos of the workers inside happily making their foam and rubber toys. Then they cut to a montage with the images flickering by almost subliminally quick: DC politicians, angry Occupy Wall Street protesters, Tea-Party rallies, unemployment charts and graphs, chaotic courtrooms, ranting talking heads, crying people filing out of the Barter Brothers factory. Within the first minute of the series, we’d already witnessed the new and all-too-familiar American economic tragedy. The show established a sense of gravity, along with an air of unease by using only realism and by first introducing John Barrett: the new and neutered postmillennial male; a living symbol of the patriarchal breakdown of society, and gosh darn it, he symbolized it well, didn’t he? (pp. 10-12)

Gosh, rewriting that made me hate it more. That first paragraph alone gives off Tremblay’s feelings toward the average American, the working middle-class and all those in the flyover states. He doesn’t like them. He thinks they’re uneducated and he sees them all as caricatures of Duck Dynasty.

When I first read this I said, “Now is that the character speaking or the author?” As any good book, characters should be strong and diverse in their opinions, actions, and thoughts. Characters don’t have to have good ideas to be considered good characters, they just have to be strong and loyal in what they believe. However, I’ve always played this game with myself wherein I read the book and pick up hints of the author’s beliefs, biases, morals, and even life experiences through what is written, then I go look up their life and see what was right. I’ve had quite a bit of success in doing this and some of the people I understood thoroughly through their writing were Thomas French for his book “A Zoo Story” and Lidia Yuknavitch’s “The Backs of Small Children.”

What I got from the above paragraph was that Tremblay was what I’d call a progressive, and probably even a radical progressive who has a hatred for conservative, libertarian, and American ideas. He hates the family, and he probably hates men. I had a few other assumptions about him that grew as I went further in such as: he has zero knowledge of organized religion outside of his pre-conceived stereotypes and has a superiority complex. All of my assumptions seemed affirmed the further into the book I went.

Before we even hit page 80, the father has been under such heavy fire from everyone in the family. Sarah, the mother, hates her husband, finds him pathetic, and when he brings up the idea of religion to help with his daughter’s problems, she is overwhelmed with the kind of disdain I can only assume Tremblay feels when he thinks about religion. His oldest daughter hates him, and his youngest daughter doesn’t much have a mind of her own. She just copies what her sister and mom want, and when she tries to empathize with her father, either her mother or sister criticizes her to make her stop. Merry’s truly nothing outside of a follower.

Tremblay plays the typical religious tropes early on. When you talk about atheists writing religious characters, you can always assume only two types of religion will come up: the trope of catholic priests that do exorcisms in just about every demon possession story in existence (and/or the pedophile priest trope) OR the fire and brimstone Baptist, this includes the Westboro Baptist Church, which is a denomination all on its own. There are literally no other ‘churches’ like Westboro, yet atheists will see Westboro “Baptist” and jump to, all baptist churches are. Kinda funny when one of their favorite phrases #NotAllMuslims.

The mother and the daughter not only hate religion but have absolute contempt and bitterness for it when it’s brought up. That’s fine. Normal for characters, but the packaging of it in the ‘blog post’ turns it more into an author bias and the continue antagonization of the father for his religious leanings made it seem more like a lecture from the author. Other points that tipped of Tremblay knew nothing about religion and did ZERO research for his book were the 8-year-old’s memories of church as nothing but boring, harps, a giant with a beard… What atheists pretty much think Christians believe in and the lame attempt of the daughter to try and pick at the dad at the dinner table.

During a dinner scene between pages 40-70 (can’t remember the exact number), the older daughter tries to get the father’s goat after he’s prayed over the food. She goes on a tangent of what if, in Heaven, everyone is just a demon. The people you love are demons. It’s all hopeless. There are two things wrong with this: If John, the dad, was actually a Christian, this would not get to him. He’d literally blow it off because he’d know demons can’t be in Heaven. They were cast out and there is a gate and vetting process. Heaven is not an open borders paradise I’m sure progressives wish and think it is. Demons can’t just come when they want. They can’t even be in the same room as God or someone who God is protecting. Demons fear God. So, bust. Two: whether this was a demon or a girl who was raised Christian then came out, she should be looking for something that would crack her dad’s armor. She went for something so clearly false and disprovable that it doesn’t strengthen the character or her ‘problems,’ but it just sounds like it’s written by an arrogant author out of hatred.

So back to the book and its structure: Chapter 1 is the intro to the two main characters, right? Chapter 2 is a blog post where Tremblay blasts his opinions in the guise of a reporter posting on a blog and retelling what the story we’re about to hear. Chapters 3 through like twenty-five are Merry talking about what happened to the best of her knowledge, retelling everything as an adult and how she recalled it while also telling us she’s unreliable because she can’t remember what was TV or what was real. Then after a large chunk of the book, we have another blog post that SUMMARIZES the entirety of what was just written–but it’s more than that. This is where I became sure of my initial feelings. The blog posts are a way for Tremblay to insert his political agenda and tell you exactly what he thinks, in case you didn’t get it from his writing. From here, he hates more on men and the only male figure in the book, who isn’t the Catholic priest. From here, Karen shits on Catholics. From here, Karen shits on men. Here’s an excerpt:

Other Jackasses have tried to argue that it’s John Barrett, not Marjorie Barrett, who becomes The Possession’s true tragic figure, and that the show is really about his descent into madness, his being possessed by the ugliness of hatred and zealotry. His daughter’s illness, his family’s dysfunction, his unemployed status, and his beloved Catholic church abandoning him post-exorcism, are the aforementioned catalysts to his own psychotic break (see the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice and their breakdown of the four types of men who kill their families), and blah, blah, blah. Fuck that bullshit. The Possession tried to position John Barrett to be its hero and failed miserably, and his cruel and cowardly poisoning of himself and his family further discredits the show’s reprehensible social and political agenda. Marjorie is our doomed hero. John Barrett was and is the wicked father, the wickedest of fathers. The show did succeed in one aspect: John was indeed a symbol of decaying patriarchy. (pp. 245)

And this typical political rant:

–While we cheer Sarah’s growth of a backbone, we face-palm Marjorie’s knowledge of the right is again presented to us as proof positive of her possession. This is one of the most misogynistic aspects of the show: not only is it impossible for a silly girl to know what the patriarchy knows (i.e., Christian verse and scripture, canonical works of literature; everything written by and for men, of course), we’re supposed to actively fear that she has acquired that knowledge. That obnoxiously Christian theme of forbidden knowledge hits us over the head as heavily as a cudgel. Yes, I said a cudgel. Marjorie even seems almost bored with her recitation of tired shit written by men the lines.–The misogyny is so obvious and pervasive that it’s almost ho-hum by this point. So let’s go goth again! (pp. 243-244)

Let’s not ignore how desperately hard Tremblay is attempting to be relevant to younger audiences through this over-the-top millennial girl with a pocket full of buzzwords and progressive complaints. He takes every shot he can at the Bible, like just about every progressive atheist. He shows no empathy for men (“Fuck that bullshit!”) and he wags his finger at everyone who’s not even there  thinking, “Women can’t know what men know.” These ‘blog posts’ are just his opportunity to tell you how wrong you are, but it’s okay, Tremblay is here to educate you.

Just in case you weren’t smart enough to catch his not so subtle nuances, here he is lecturing you about how he feels about everything. This is the real reason he wrote this book. And then after the blog post chapter, we have Rachael and Merry discussing the police report file–because the television show retelling ended abruptly and didn’t tell us how everyone died. I laughed so hard when I read this section.

Remember when I said atheists only have two versions of Christianity they recognize? Catholic exorcism/pedophiles and Hellfire baptists? Well, it’s in this chapter that we become privy to a group of baptist protesters with horrendous signs whom her dad punched out. That’s right. Westboro Baptist = #AllBaptists. The only depressing thing about being right is that this scenario is depressing and this mindset closed and destructive.

Following that chapter we have another flashback chapter to the night Merry’s family died, and then we have a final chapter of about 3-4 pages of the two offering each other pleasantries and the equivalence of the hand coming out of the earth at the end of Carrie.

Turns out Merry’s family didn’t die because of possession of any kind, but because her older sister poisoned the family’s pasta sauce with cyanide and they all ate it and died. Now as I read this bit, I thought the author was beyond lazy… In just the first like, five chapters of the book, they have pasta 3-4 times and every time Merry says she doesn’t eat the pasta sauce. Older sister poisons the pasta sauce, I assume with the intention of everyone dying and then questions Merry as to why she’s not eating the pasta sauce and that ‘she eats pizza sauce. I don’t understand why you don’t eat this.” Dad says he stopped trying to understand people a while ago and that’s the end of the discussion and soon the end of their lives.

Big sister Marjorie was well aware that her sister didn’t eat pasta sauce. If she wanted to kill everyone, she knew the pasta sauce wasn’t the place to put the cyanide. There was no explanation as to why she chose not to poison Merry and the only thing I get from this is, “Well, someone has to be around to tell the story so..”

It was a plot device and a lazy one at that. It wasn’t scary, it wasn’t thoughtful, ingenious, or manipulative.

This entire book was unimaginative, cliche, and boring and I haven’t even gotten to the biggest piece of evidence that confirmed my assumptions: an essay in the back of the book about horror and politics.

Leave it up to progressives to try and ruin everything. To be heavy-handed in everything they do, and to condemn everyone who doesn’t think like them. I’ll get to dissecting the essay in my best blog (as this one’s already pretty long), but let’s just say about ¼ of the way through “Head Full of Ghosts” and I skipped to the back of the book to read some of the extras, including the essay entitled, “The H Word: The Politics of Horror.”

In this essay, Tremblay argues that the best horror stories are progressive’ horror stories meanwhile he equals conservative and reaction to being the same thing and says they are less successful horror story. On the following page, he says the Exorcist is one of the most successful horror stories in existence which brought about the renaissance for horror stories… but also says it’s a ‘conservative/reactionary’ horror story.

So he’s contradicted himself by saying progressive horror stories are best, but one of the best horror stories in his opinion is actually not ‘progressive’ in his mind. He follows this up by saying the difference between a progressive horror story and a conservative horror story is that progressive stories end on sad notes while conservative horror stories end on positive notes, give some cheering moments to viewers/readers, and shouldn’t be considered horror at all. I’ll get into how ludicrous this is in my next post dissecting his essay.

The importance of mentioning this goes as follows: He thinks he writes some of the best horror stories because he’s a political progressive. He also believes that horror stories must follow a certain pattern and must end on a completely depressing note in order to be considered horror stories. Basically, the enter text or story doesn’t matter–just the last couple of minutes. That’s what defines a horror story. So how do you think his story ended? Right then I questioned whether I should even bother finishing the novel because well, I knew how it’d end. In Tremblay’s mind, everyone had to die (except for clearly the storyteller. SOMEONE has to survive to tell his story, right?). So I skimmed through the rest the 3/4ths of the book I hadn’t read and yeah, everyone dies, just as you expect.

How does Tremblay think he can write anything new or revolutionary when he clearly believes, based on this essay, that there’s only one way to write a story? He can’t. He’s a weak writer with the linguist skill of a novice YA author and the creativity of a 16-year-old girl. Head Full of Ghosts offers no new ideas, surprises, or frights. It just offers the same reused tropes in the form of a liberal Exorcist remake.

Clearly, based on his essay, The Exorcist was good, but what it needed was to be ‘progressive,’ so he rewrote it that way and like all other remakes, especially when rewritten with political ideologies specifically in mind, it sucked.

If Tremblay plans to follow the ‘progressive recipe for good storytelling,’ I don’t know how good his career is actually going to be. He can’t surprise us and he’s admitted it when he says there’s only one way to write a book and believe me, his essay is one of the reasons this is review is so critical of the political ideology in his story. I’ll be explaining all that in my next blog post.

The only assumption I haven’t had reaffirmed by his writing is if Tremblay had a distant or absent father. Based on how he writes about males and ‘the failing patriarchy,’ I can only assume he has a poor relationship with his father if he had one at all.

I can’t believe I spent money on this.

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© 2019 by Ian Kirkpatrick