27 September 2016

Review: A Head Full of Ghosts

Image from titanbooks.com
A Head Full of Ghosts
Paul Tremblay
Titan Books, 27 September 2016
PB, 369pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book

Possession. A staple of horror fiction, in books and films, but really, a problematic staple, over used, under analysed - the biggest problem perhaps being how to make a new story when overshadowing the entire genre is The Exorcist?  The film is so culturally ubiquitous that any family (and it always is a family) portrayed in a story as undergoing possession will inevitably think in Exorcist terms - the young girl, the obscene language, the eccentric Roman Catholic priest and so on.

Well, here's a way to do it. Accept the self-referentiality. Glory in it. Indeed, let the story analyse itself. Let your characters - or at least some of them - be conscious of all that baggage. Let the possession itself be the subject of a reality TV show, introducing another layer of artificiality to this already artificial situation. Then add more.

A blogger, 15 years later, reviewing and analysing the TV series.

One of the family, putting forward her side of things in a book.

In Tremblay's new book, we don't "see" the "possession" and its aftermath "ourselves". Instead we get several interlinking accounts: The older Merry's story, told to a journalist, Rachel. The Last Final Girl Blog, prop Karen Brisette, reviewing that seminal reality TV series, The Possession. But nothing pretending to be an unmediated, direct narration of the events themselves - not even a straight account of the TV series: instead, only recollections and analysis (including discussion of how, even at the time, the TV series was distorting, exaggerating, sexing up the events). If you're already thinking "unreliable narrator" I think you're on the right track - except there are several of them.

The result is at the same both a spooky horror story - or at least it might be spooky, there may or may not be real supernatural stuff here but there is horror - and an acute meditation on popular belief (both in the supernatural and in religion itself), the role of the media and even the politics of the horror story itself .Tremblay follows this up with a shrewd essay which may or may not deconstruct this particular story, but adds greatly to its resonance.

The story then. It is now(wish) and the Barrett family - Merry(8), Marjorie(14), Sarah and John - are struggling. Marjorie's going a bit weird. John's lost his job but found religion, and the home is about to be repossessed.

It's also 15 years in the future and Merry, the younger daughter, is telling her story to a journalist or ghostwriter (I wasn't sure which). In the same timeframe (I think) Brisette is reprising the TV series.

There follows a claustrophobic, multi layered story in which, perhaps, concerned, civilized parents, despairing of modern medicine, resort to a primitive religious rite (involving their daughter being strapped to her bed) which goes chaotically wrong.

Or, a manipulative child, seeking attention, orchestrates everyone around her to get it.

Or there is a subtle and implicit conspiracy between parent and child to keep the interest of the TV producers and so raise money to pay the family debts.

Or there is actual possession of one family member or another. All these alternatives, and others, are possible. Perhaps at one level all of them are true, perhaps there is a very particular and very definite answer. One senses that the clues are here, and they relate as much to how popular culture has embraced the idea of possession - they lie in references to books, to films - as they do to the detail of the house and the events in it, set out as these are in forensic detail.

It's an engrossing and, as events move on, increasingly scary and disturbing read which kept me up past midnight. Not least because the characters are so scarily convincing - both the disturbed older sister and the baffled younger one: the father, affronted by loss of his job, seeking perhaps to reinforce the traditional (male dominated) order of things by turning to religion and using it to tame his unruly child: the mother, falling apart, knowing she wants to stop what's happening but unable to act. Yes, whether or not there is really an "possession" here, this family is in Hell...

Disclaimer - I am married to a priest, although she has never (to my knowledge) conducted an exorcism. And long may that continue.

(A passing point: in two successive books I've read, this and Kate Moretti's The Vanishing Year,
American families are stressed by the horror of medical costs. I'm not political on this blog but reading both, I said a quite prayer of gratitude for Aneurin Bevan and the NHS.)

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