Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full Of Ghosts is a beautiful novel, a post-modern tale of demonic possession that leaves you questioning where truth lies in our surreal/unreal world.
Publisher William Morrow sums up A Head Full Of Ghosts:
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.
Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface—and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.
Like a brilliant gem, A Head Full Of Ghosts looks different from different angles. Overall, it’s a story about the bonds of sisterhood. It’s also an indictment of our reality TV culture and the toll it takes on reality itself. Viewed from another angle, it’s a straight-up tale of demonic possession packed with genuinely scary moments, suspenseful scenes, and plot twists that leave the reader satisfied—and a bit haunted—after reading.
That’s how good horror stories work and Tremblay has crafted a great one. He freely pulls from pop culture influences—from Richard Scarry books to Lovecraft’s Elder Gods mythos—and deftly weaves them into a plausible framework for his story.
At one point Tremblay describes the older sister’s disheveled appearance:
Her black hair was a dead octopus leaking and sliding off her scalp.
Conjuring images of both Lovecraftian monsters and the pale she-demons that stalk modern Japanese horror, like The Ring.
What kind of demon is at work here? Tremblay implies it’s the vengeful ghost of the Internet itself when Majorie reports:
I was born with all of the universe’s information hidden in the infinite folds and wrinkles of my gray matter, and the information itself decides when it wants to come out and be known.
At times Tremblay implicates the readers as voyeuristic sadists, as we watch “the terrible and systematic torture of a mentally ill teenage girl under the guise of entertainment.” Then he flips the script so you feel like you’re no more than a morsel of food slipping into a monstrous gullet.
“I could eat the world. Merry, pass the sauce, please,” Majorie said, and winked at me.
All the characters are fully realized and accessible. Your heart breaks for the Barrett family as outside forces—perhaps demonic, perhaps dogmatic— tear their lives apart.
I made a social blunder recently when I disparaged Harry Potter during a family vacation.
I started reading the Harry Potter series this summer, along with my wife and our 11-year-old daughter. There are lots of Harry Potter fans in our extended family. I have several nieces and nephews that grew up with author J.K. Rowling’s books and movies. My niece recently visited to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida to celebrate her graduation … from college!
These were hardcore fans. I should have known better when they asked what I thought of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
“It’s kind of childish,” I said. “Heavy handed. Does the bad kid at school need to be named Draco Malfoy, and his thug friends Crabbe and Goyle? Is Goyle’s first name Gar? I understand these characters are snakes in the grass, but do they need to live in Slytherin House, too?”
Everyone looked at me slack-jawed, like I’d blasted a wet shart right there in front of the group. Really, Uncle Rob? Are you that guy, the one who finds fault with things that everybody else likes?
Well, yeah, I’m that guy. I’m a book reviewer, a “literary critic.” (www.bobsbookblog.com). I’m supposed to kick the tires and pick at the seams of novels and short stories, check the quality of their build, see how they function, and let people know if they deliver the literary goods.
I tried to clarify my Harry Potter stance with my wife later on.
“There’s a simple beauty to J.K. Rowling’s work, the way some of the best songs are built around three chords. It’s catchy, gets your heart pumping, and sweeps you away. That’s the magic of Harry Potter. It’s like a great pop song you can’t stop humming,” I explained.
“But I didn’t appreciate Rowling’s running gag with the character names. It was silly and took me out of the story,” I said. “There’s no reason to name your characters Billy Badguy, Sally Sidekick, or Lucy Loveinterest.”
“What if you had a character named Bob Buzzkill?” my wife asked. “Or Peter Pretentious. Maybe Biggie Blackcloud. He’d be a mopey Native American who makes it rain on everybody’s parade.”
“Funny, but that’s not me,” I said. “I’m a journalist! I dissect the subject to get to the truth! I’d be Chris Critic! Geraldo Reviewer!”
“Jerky McJealous,” my wife countered. “Write your own bestselling young adult series if you don’t like Harry Potter.”
Clearly this is not an argument I’m meant to win. Nor do I want to.
Because I like Harry Potter! I’m new to Rowling’s Wizarding World, but already I can see it’s filled with memorable adventures and unforgettable characters. I don’t know if it’s a modern literary classic, but it’s certainly well crafted and delightfully designed. Harry Potter is built with love and built to last.
So what if I have quibbles with Rowling’s character names? It’s certainly not the first thing I should mention when people ask how I like the Harry Potter series. But I have poor social skills, and I’m…I’m…
Igor Ignorant. Arnie Awkward. Jack Ass. Dullard Scott.
Protagonist Ignatius C. Reilly is a bloated buffoon, a man-baby who lives with his mother, has a troubled digestive valve that causes him to burp and fart with great frequency, and possesses one of the most “unique” worldviews you’re likely to find.
Ignatius is loaf completely at ease with his loafishness:
“I dust a bit,” Ignatius told the policeman. “In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”
Ignatius is like a giant child when he considers his career options and argues with his mother:
I suspect that something like a newspaper route would be rather agreeable.
“I dare you to come out in that shredded nightgown and get me!” Ignatius answered defiantly and stuck out his massive pink tongue.
Above all, A Confederacy of Dunces is funny. Laugh out loud is an overused phrase, but COD will make you LOL for realz, yo. The situations are so absurd, the characters so odd, and the dialogue veers between biting satire punctuated by unexpected blasts of pee-your-pants profanity.
“Go dangle your withered parts over the toilet!” Ignatius screamed savagely. Miss Trixie shuffled away.
No mater what the problem, Ignatius always finds a way to blame others.
“Employers sense in me a denial of their values.” He rolled over onto his back. “They fear me. I suspect that they can see that I am forced to function in a century which I loathe.
You must realize the fear and hatred which my weltanschauung instills in people.
He twisted his face into a mask of suffering. There was no use fighting Fortuna until the cycle was over. “You realize, of course, that this is all your fault.
“You’re full of bullshit.”
“I? The incident is sociologically valid. The blame rests upon our society.”
Sometimes COD goes for screwball comedy and slapstick. Taken as a whole, COD is the mother of all farces.
When he’s not avoiding work or fighting with his mother, Ignatius plots against Myrna, a radical student he once attended classes with. The romantic ending of COD is anticipated but still manages to be unexpectedly satisfying.
Dr. Talc idly wondered if they (Iggy and Myrna) had married each other. Each certainly deserved the other.
Through Myrna’s letters we see she has true insight into Ignatius’ personality:
This “automobile accident” is a new crutch to help you make excuses for your meaningless, impotent existence.
A good, explosive orgasm would cleanse your being and bring you out of the shadows.
Great Oedipus bonds are encircling your brain and destroying you
Ignatius, a very bad crack-up is on the way. You must do something. Even volunteer work at a hospital would snap you out of your apathy,
The valve closes because it thinks it is living in a dead organism. Open your heart, Ignatius, and you will open your valve.
Behind his absurdity, Ignatius is sad and lonely, a sorrow that stems from his isolationism:
We both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Myrna was, you see, terribly engaged in her society; I, on the other hand, older and wiser, was terribly dis-engaged.
I really have had little to do with them, for I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.
I don’t dance. I never dance. I have never danced in my life.
COD is also a love letter to Toole’s native New Orleans:
Patrolman Mancuso inhaled the moldy scent of the oaks and thought, in a romantic aside, that St. Charles Avenue must be the loveliest place in the world.
New Orleans is, on the other hand, a comfortable metropolis which has a certain apathy and stagnation which I find inoffensive. At least its climate is mild.
The balconies of the old buildings hung over my head like dark branches in an allegorical forest of evil.
I won’t get into the tragic personal history of author John Kenndy Toole. The story behind his career and the publication of COD is itself an impossible tale of heartbreaking genius. But the toxic mother-son relationship at the heart of this novel certainly is rife with autobiographical elements.
Ms. Reilly laments Ignatius’ weak work ethic.
“My heart’s broke.”
“Ain’t he writing something?”
“Some foolishness nobody never gonna feel like reading.”
Fortunately, the real-life Thelma Toole felt differently about her son’s work.
The magic of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling lies in its combination of simplicity and familiarity. Like a three-chord pop song, Harry Potter sticks in your head, causing pleasant sensations as it bounces around your brain.
The star of the show, of course, is Harry Potter himself, a downtrodden elementary school student who must contend with the sudden responsibility of fulfilling a magical destiny. The well-known coming-of-age tale of finding (and re-inventing) yourself in a new school gives Harry Potter’s high fantasy a connection to real-world grade school drama, which is what makes this book so appealing to readers of all ages.
Harry embarks upon a hero’s quest to find the elusive Sorcerer’s Stone.
The Stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.
“Now, don’t ask me anymore,” said Hagrid gruffly. “That’s top secret, that is.”
There’s the wise and patient old teacher, Dumbledore, who walks a trail blazed by Gandolf and Yoda, and gets the lion’s share of the book’s most meaningful quotes:
It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.
To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.
“The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”
“Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
This last one is interesting, since Rowling plays an annoying name game with the characters in Harry Potter. The school bully is named Draco Malfoy and his thug friends are Crabbe and Goyle. These characters are snakes in the grass and they live in Slytherin House. The school nerd is Neville Longbottom. A wicked teacher is named Severus Snape. Maybe younger readers find these over-the-top character names endearing, but they took me out of the story a bit every time I encountered them.
Naming quibbles aside, Rowling’s writing is sharp, lean, and constantly moving forward. This is the stuff that page-turners are made off. Keeping her younger readers in mind, Rowling sometimes goes straight for juvenile gross-out:
“Can you smell something?” Harry sniffed and a foul stench reached his nostrils, a mixture of old socks and the kind of public toilet no one seems to clean.
He bent down and pulled his wand out of the troll’s nose. It was covered in what looked like lumpy gray glue. “Urgh – troll boogers.” He wiped it on the troll’s trousers.
Other times, Harry Potter skirts the fringes of horror fiction (while conjuring the legend of Edward Mordake):
Harry would have screamed, but he couldn’t make a sound. Where there should have been a back to Quirrell’s head, there was a face, the most terrible face Harry had ever seen. It was chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake.
A piercing, bloodcurdling shriek split the silence — the book was screaming! Harry snapped it shut, but the shriek went on and on, one high, unbroken, earsplitting note.
Part of the fun of Harry Potter is the interactive games, wizarding spells, and puzzle solving that keeps the reader engaged the way an old Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen mystery might.
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Dumbledore serves up the novel’s main theme—undying love versus ancient evil—for young hero, Harry:
He (Voldemort) didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.
Isn’t this the wish of all living beings, to be loved by our mothers, and to be watched over by those who came before us? To be marked by a love so powerful and eternal it will protect and guide you through life?
It’s no wonder the Harry Potter franchise is so popular. It contains characters and situations we can all relate too (even if they’re cloaked in the fantastic) while quietly fulfilling humanity’s deepest wish.
Even so, there are amazing and memorable moments in this book, as well as a few genuinely shocking events, including multiple cases of incest (the Buendia family has a proclivity toward incest, as well as a constant fear of birthing a monster baby born with a “pig’s tail”).
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s language is breathtaking and strange:
“He had wept in his mother’s womb and had been born with this eyes open”
Surrealistic fiction means anything can happen, and it often does in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It rains for “four years, eleven months, and two days.” They tie the family patriarch to a tree for decades. There’s a rain of flowers. All this strangeness is taken in stride, which is what makes it so surreal. The overall theme seems to be the Buendia family’s failure to learn from past mistakes.
Family matriarch Urusala notes:
“Every member of the family, without realizing it, repeated the same path every day, the same actions, and almost repeated the same words at the same hour. Only when they deviated from the meticulous routine did they run the risk of losing something.”
The word “solitude” takes on a different meaning each time it appears in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Sometimes it means being alone and/or lonely. Other times solitude is a type of personal obligation or duty that one must endure. Solitude above all seems to be the common thread that runs through the Buendia family, as each member has their own moments of intense personal reflection.
García Márquez mentions “the paradise of shared solitude,” and says of the relationship between Jose Arcadio and Aureliano:
“That drawing closer together of two solitary people of the same blood was far from friendship, but it did allow them both to beaer up better under the unfathomable solitude that separated and united them at the same time.”
There’s undoubtedly a lot of political metaphor here. Marquez’s fictional town of Macondo is a stand-in for Colombia, and I’m sure I missed the geopolitical significance of many of the events in the novel since I’m not familiar with Colombia’s history. Evidently there are a lot of real-life events seen metaphorically in One Hundred Years of Solitude, like the building of a railroad into the secluded mountain regions, the slaughter of striking workers by government soldiers, and the influence of big business on the culture. (The novel’s “American Fruit Company” is a stand-in for the United Fruit Company, an American company whose rapid expansion into Central and South America countries in the early 1900s brought about the term “banana republics.”)
According to our omniscient overlord, Wikipedia, “García Márquez is said to have a gift for blending the everyday with the miraculous, the historical with the fabulous, and psychological realism with surreal flights of fancy.” It’s true (like everything Wiki tells us, right?) but García Márquez makes it hurt with dense language and ponderous pacing.
One Hundred Years of Solitude may be a literary classic, but something got lost in translation for me.
We all want to be Hugh Howey when we grow up. Howey is a folk hero to those of us who dip our toes in the waters of self-publishing.
After publishing Wool with a small press, Howey self-published his post-apocalyptic sci-fi series on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, where it found a huge audience. The following year, Howey sold the film rights for Wool to 20th Century Fox, and inked a print distribution deal with Simon and Schuster. Howey reportedly turned down a seven-figure offer in favor of a mid-six figure sum in return for maintaining e-book rights.
His first step was writing a damn good story. Howey’s got storytelling chops, with cool characters to root for, evil villains to boo, and enough intellectual meat and moral fiber to leave readers feeling full.
Wool’s characters are likeable, believable, and keep the story moving. They walk the classic tightrope of all action heroes, from the stars of swashbuckling radio serials to the survivors of The Walking Dead. They fight on, even when hope no longer makes sense.
Despite its warm and fuzzy title, Wool ventures into some dark and dangerous territory. There are all kinds of political overtones, undertones, and sub-tones at work in Wool. It’s a classic class battle of the haves and have-nots, but here the currency is knowledge. The haves are in on the big secret of the silo(s) and the have-nots are kept in the dark about their own existence.
Spoiler alert! One of Howey’s well-drawn secondary characters spills the beans about halfway through.
“We are the seeds,” he said. “This is a silo. They put us here for the bad times.”
He also points out that seeds left alone for too long tend to rot, and Lord of the Flies-type hijinks inevitably ensues. Mankind’s war-like nature is on full display in Wool.
They all knew, instinctively, how to build implements of pain. It was something even shadows knew how to do at a young age, knowledge somehow dredged up from the brutal depths of their imagination, this ability to deal harm to one another.
This is a story about political power, intrigue, and grassroots revolts. Within Wool’s compelling story structure there are meditations on:
Metal would snap if you could wiggle it even a little bit, if you did it long enough. She had felt the heat of weakened steel countless times while bending it over and over until it broke
There’s fear that small pockets of survivors might be holed up elsewhere around the globe. Operation Fifty is completely pointless if anyone else survives. The population has to be homogenous…
Life under totalitarian rule
They put us in this game, a game where breaking the rules means we all die, every single one of us. But living by those rules, obeying them, means we all suffer.
Wool reminds me of E.M. Forster’s classic The Machine Stops, but then a lot of good dystopian science fiction does. We are all becoming more and more like Forster’s underground society of hive-dwelling, WiFi-sucking hermits every day.
Hillenbrand is a long way from the bucolic meadows and stinky stables she brought to life in her bestselling book, Seabiscuit. Here the backdrop is World War II, and her impeccably researched book spans the world from the California homefront, to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, to the POW camps of Japan.
Hillenbrand’s deepest travels are into the mind and spirit of Louis Zamparini, a California bad-boy-turned-track-star who went from shaking Hitler’s hand at the 1936 Olympics to seeing some of WWII’s harshest fighting.
Zamparini’s plane crashed while searching for another downed crew, and he survived in a raft for 47 days, and then endured another two years in a Japanese POW camp under the harshest conditions imaginable. Unbroken is a tale of the resilience of the human spirit, and the ability to maintain hope in the face of hopelessness.
Hillenbrand’s prose is lean and clean, and she paints word pictures with a reporter’s eye and a poet’s tongue. She writes about Zamparini’s time lost at sea:
“It was not a great presence but a great absence, a geometric ocean of darkness that seemed to swallow heaven itself.”
Perhaps Zamparini’s biggest obstacle is overcoming the posttraumatic stress of his POW camp ordeal, and learning the healing power of forgiveness.
“This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind.”
Zamparini’s example is inspiring and nearly superhuman.
Every single one of us has got the devil inside, and nobody knows it better than Ignatius Parrish the narrator of Joe Hill’s novel Horns. Ig wakes after a night of sorrowful drinking to find he’s grown horns on top of his head. Worse yet, the horns bring out the worst in everyone Ig encounters.
Ig isn’t a very popular guy. Most everyone in town suspects he murdered his girlfriend, Merrin — even his own parents. The horns give people permission to tell Ig how they really feel about him. It isn’t pretty.
But Ig’s horny head is a blessing, too. The horns allow him to get to the truth behind Merrin’s murder and mete devilish justice out on the guilty.
Horns has excellent plot and pacing, especially in the first half of the novel. Paired down to its bare bones Horns is a balls-out revenge novella, something straight out of EC comics. But Hill adds depth through flashbacks and character development. Merrin and Iggy get fleshed out nicely, and their story takes on the homespun sweetness of a high school romance.
Hill visits delightfully dark places in Horns. (How fun would it be to push your annoying grandma’s wheelchair down a hill and into a fence?) Hill brings some metaphor to the mayhem, too.
It was something, the way the wheelchair picked up speed, the way a person’s life picked up speed, the way a life was like a bullet aimed at one final target, impossible to slow or turn aside, and like the bullet, you were ignorant of what you were going to hit, would never know anything except the rush and the impact.
Hill finds ways to weave thoughtful contemplation into his revenge narrative.
Pi is an irrational number, incapable of being made into a fraction, impossible to divide from itself. So, too, the soul is an irrational, indivisible equation that perfectly expresses one thing: you.
Even though Iggy’s gone demon, he hasn’t forgotten what it means to be human.
I want you to remember what was good in me, not what was most awful. The people you love should be allowed to keep their worst to themselves.
Some of the symbolism in Horns is a little heavy-handed (Ig’s father and brother are both accomplished “horn players”), but overall Hill brings the story home in fine style. While Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box staggered to the finish line, Horns is a fiendish read with a satisfying conclusion.
Author Rick Riordan found a way to make 6th grade Social Studies interesting by giving Greek mythology a modern update and employing a likeable adolescent hero in this first installment of his Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series, The Lightning Thief.
Percy is a dyslexic, ADHD kid who has been kicked out of six schools in the past six years. He’s also a demigod — a half-human, half-God hybrid. Percy’s Mom is a nice lady named Sally Jackson, and his father is one of Olympus’ Big Three — Zeus, Poseidon or Hades. Learning his father’s identity is the first of many quests for Percy.
Riordan taught English and Social Studies and is the father of an ADHD child, all of which he incorporates into the fictional world of Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Riordan also uses Neil Gaiman’s American Gods formula of putting mythological gods in modern day America, breathing new life into the stuffy, dusty world of centaurs, satyrs, and sea nymphs. The Lightning Thief plays out like an action adventure flick rather than a retelling of Bulfinch’s Mythology.
As Percy travels the country trying to solve the mystery of Zeus’ missing lightning bolt, he battles some major monsters, including Medusa, Echidna, and Chimera (as well as avoiding the allure of Kronos’ hypnotic whisper from the dark depths of a Tartaran pit). Things get a little heavy along the way and some parts of The Lightning Thief might be scary for kids — but isn’t that the mark of all great children’s literature?
There are enough backstabbings and betrayals to make The Lightning Thief read more like junior high crime noir than Greek mythology. Riordan keeps the plot twisting and turning right up until the very end — which, of course, leaves the door open for the other four books in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.
Gaiman’s Coraline has gone from cult classic to timeless classic since its release in 2002. We all relate to a kid that doesn’t get enough parental attention, and Coraline’s heroic journey — to rescue her kidnapped parents, free the souls three lost children, and destroy the wicked Other Mother — is as epic as any taken by Hercules, Odysseus, or the Knights of the Round Table.
Coraline shares many themes with these classic tales: it’s about sacrifice and bravery, and being careful what you wish for. Coraline learns that sometimes you don’t appreciate what you have until you almost lose it.
“It is astonishing just how much of what we are can be tied to the beds we wake up in in the morning, and it is astonishing how fragile that can be.”
Coraline also learns the importance of working toward your achievements, and the Zen art of The Journey over The Destination.
“ ‘You really don’t understand, do you?’ she said. ‘I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted?’”
Coraline is a beautifully rendered trip into a surreal world that feels a bit like a Tim Burton fever dream, or The Brothers Grimm in a bad mood. But Gaiman’s vision is uniquely his own. The Other Mother is as wicked a witch as any conjured by Disney, Mother Goose, or L. Frank Baum, and Coraline is the kind of hero you never tire of cheering for.