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.
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.
There is something beautiful and poetic about the splatterpunk redneck fiction on display in Edward Lee‘s novella Header (1995) and the long-form novel Creekers (1994).
Lee’s redneck horror pays homage to Richard Laymon‘s novels of backwoods terror as well as James Dickey‘s classic, Deliverance. Lee’s work is violent and nasty, but his pacing and dialogue are so swift and on-target, you’re knee-deep in foul shit before you even know what happened.
Headers is a twisted novella about rednecks that drill holes in peoples’ skulls and stick their erections inside. Creekers is about backwoods inbreds, and the slick tight rope they walk between an ancient evil and the modern plague of drugs.
The drug trade is the backdrop in both Headers and Creekers. Both stories have lawmen protagonists who are down on their luck and looking for redemption. It doesn’t work out so well for either guy.
Both of these novels are rollicking fun, even if they’re bloody disgusting. Like a Quentin Tarantino movie, Lee’s work seems to revel in a cartoonish level of violence and gore while searching for some kind of existential meaning beyond the mutilation and torment of the physical body. There are lots of dirty sex scenes, too. What’s not to like?
I didn’t know what to expect when I dove into Richard Long’s debut novel, The Book of Paul, other than Stephen King endorsed it and the novel was billed as “ a paranormal thriller.” Based on the cover, I figured The Book of Paul was a mythology-based tale of pirates for young adult readers. The skeleton keys on the cover look like a skull and crossbones on ancient parchment paper, you know?
But by Chapter Four a tattooed Goth girl with labia piercings is blowing a big-dicked muscle-head, so I had to toss my assumptions out the window. This wasn’t young adult fiction.
I’m sure this happens a lot with The Book of Paul. It’s a wild genre-bending ride through mythology, magic, and white-knuckled action adventure.
According to author Richard Long:
The Book of Paul is the first of seven volumes in a sweeping mythological narrative tracing the mystical connections between Hermes Trismegistus in ancient Egypt, Sophia, the female counterpart of Christ, and the Celtic druids of Clan Kelly.
Long’s blend of mythology and realism is stylistically similar to Neil Gaiman‘s, but Long’s prose is leaner and meaner with more of a noir feel, for example:
The tiny .22-caliber bullet was ricocheting inside her skull like a pinball, lighting up old memories of love and cruelty as it whipped the spidery gray filaments of her brain into a six-egg omelet.
Sometimes the action slips into comic book-like mayhem.
The Striker punched him in the throat. “Aaack!” Paul gacked, hitting the floor with a thunderous boom!
The Book of Paul is fun, fun, fun, and Paul is one of the most delightfully wicked villains in modern memory. Evil, funny, and weirdly human (particularly strange for an immortal) Paul delivers some of the novel’s best lines and most powerful insights, like:
Sometimes I think evil is just loneliness with nowhere else to go.
Lonely or not, Paul is a man/demi-god who keeps his eye on the prize, in this case, the fulfillment of a centuries old prophecy.
Characters are the backbone of any good story, and Long has created an unforgettable cast in The Book of Paul. Brainwashed muscleman Martin, Goth princess Rose, in-and-out of the narrative narrator William, confused accomplice Michael Bean and a gaggle of tattooed, body-modified counter-culture superfreaks.
Paul’s backstory and the history of his clan is complex, but Long keeps it interesting with meaty philosophical asides:
“It’s no mystery why we hide from death. We hide because we fear it. The greatest mystery of life is death. What force engineered this necessity? What is this thing we call ‘food’? We eat life, William. We eat life! And we eat it every single day!”
The Book of Paul is a winning genre mashup. Imagine if Quentin Tarantino directed Highlander and you’ll have an idea of what Long has created. As much as I dislike serial novels, I’m looking forward to the continuing adventures of Clan Kelly. As The Man himself notes:
“Stories never end,” Paul grunted, “at least not the ones I tell.”
I discovered more of Laymon’s signature work in the pages of Cemetery Dance and other small press publications. All of his short fiction was low-down, dirty, and twisted. “Desert Pick-up,” “Oscar’s Audition.” “The Grab.” Each was a gem shinier than the next, all of which are collected in Short Stories: The Mystery and Men’s Magazines. Why couldn’t I find Laymon’s novels in bookstores? I finally got my hands on a used paperback copy of The Cellar, whichturned me into a full-fledged Laymon disciple.
You can see Laymon’s favorite themes in their infancy in this collection. A camping trip interrupted by a knife-wielding maniac is the setting for “Out Of The Woods,” which also displays Laymon’s economic-yet-effective prose.
He grinned as if a glimpse of his big crooked teeth would help me understand better. It did.
Sure, some Richard Laymon short fiction isn’t very original — he riffs on everything from folk tales, to urban legends, to noir detective fiction — but the stories are well crafted, elegant in their simplicity, like Amish furniture.
Some of the stories in Short Stories: The Mystery and Men’s Magazines seem particularly rudimentary. Laymon used to write Easy Reader-style mystery and suspense fiction for both adults and juveniles, and that style comes through in a few of the stories here.
But Laymon had style! Nobody — except perhaps Elmore Leonard or James M. Cain — used dialogue better to advance plot and define characters. Why Richard Laymon was never a big Hollywood screenwriter is a mystery to me.
The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism (2007) by Naoki Higashida
KA Yoshida (translator) David Mitchell (translator)
The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida is like a Rosetta Stone, a secret decoder ring for autism’s many mysteries.
Author Naoki Higashida is a non-verbal boy with autism living in Japan. He’s able to write using a letter board, and this book of essays was published in 2006 when Higashida was 13 years old.
While Higashida doesn’t represent everyone on the autistic spectrum, his book certainly helps explain many autistic behaviors from the inside out. Higashida answers questions on a variety of topics, like, “Why do you flap your hands?” and, “Why do you like to jump?”
Higashida’s answers show amazing insight into the autistic mind, detailing a unique system for filing memories, as well as a perpetual struggle with sensory input, and the concept of linear time.
The mental gymnastics needed to overcome autism’s obstacles are tremendous, and sometimes brilliant. But it’s exhausting being inside Higashida’s head — you can only imagine how he must feel.
A quest for consistency — for something true and unchanging — is behind many autistic behaviors, as seen in Higashida’s response to the question, “Why do you like to spin things?”
“Watching spinning things fills us with a sort of everlasting bliss — for the time we sit watching them, they rotate with perfect regularity. Whatever object we spin, this is always true. Unchanging things are comforting, and there’s something beautiful about that.”
Many of Higashida’s introspective insights are universal, and written with a poet’s hand.
“Invisible things like human relationships and ambiguous expressions … these are difficult for us people with autism to get our head around.”
Invisible things are hard for all of us to grasp. Thoughts, emotions, memories, and faith; germs, virus, and disease. Our lives are ruled by Invisibles. They get us all in the end.
Asked what causes his panic attacks and meltdowns, Higashida’s response is perceptive and poignant:
“Stuck here inside these unresponsive bodies of ours, with feelings we can’t properly express, it’s always a struggle just to survive. And it’s this feeling of helplessness that sometimes drives us half crazy, and brings on a panic attack or a meltdown.”
Higashida’s apologetic tone resonates throughout this collection. He longs to connect, but he knows his strange behavior makes others uncomfortable, and it breaks his heart. It will break yours, too.
But The Reason I Jump is a double-shot of hope for parents of children with autism, especially those of us raising non-verbal / limited-speech kids. This book is proof of what we’ve known all along — our kids are thinking / feeling / loving people trapped inside uncooperative bodies. They wear their skin like an ill-fitting suit, constantly tripping on the hems, and getting caught up in the sleeves whenever they reach for something. Sensory Integration Disorder and the strange wiring of the autistic brain makes connecting with the outside world a challenge for our kids.
Higashida says the autistic mind focuses on details (flashing lights, a ladder, hoses, black tires, loud siren); while a typical mind will immediate recognize an object (a fire truck). Higashida sees a benefit in this reverse-engineered view of the world.
“Every single thing has its own unique beauty. People with autism get to cherish this beauty, as if it’s a kind of blessing given to us.”
Connect with a person with autism — see the world through their eyes — and you’ll be blessed, too.
I re-read Stephen King’s The Shining recently in preparation for the release of its sequel, Doctor Sleep. I’m glad I did.
The Shining is a beautifully written novel, simple, elegant, and powerful. There are only four main characters: Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy, his son Danny, and the Overlook Hotel itself.
At its core, The Shining is an update of the classic “trapped in a haunted house” tale. It’s also the story of a family coming apart at the seams, strained relationships blowing up like the ancient boiler in the basement of the Overlook.
Jack and Wendy are clearly drawn, easily identifiable, sympathetic characters. Danny, with his ability to shine, propels the story forward. His psychic abilities awaken the hotel’s wicked past, and the Overlook preys on the weakest link — recovering alcoholic Jack.
An originator of the early splatterpunk movement, Richard Laymon was an unsung artist who made the job of “novelist” look easy with his literary virtuosity and prolific output.
But, like Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Laymon got no respect. He never found a big American audience for his work during his lifetime. He pumped out thrillers alongside Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, John Saul, and Stephen King, but never achieved the fame and fortune of his contemporaries. Critics dismissed his work as too sexiest and/or too violent. Laymon was an “underground favorite” who had a hard time finding American publishers for his novels.
Fortunately, Laymon found an audience overseas. His sales in England and Australia during the ’80 and ‘90s kept his literary career alive. He was able to eek out a living, feed his family, and keep a roof over their heads.
This alone qualifies him as a literary hero.
Things improved for Laymon in the late ‘90s. Leisure Books published his back catalog to great success. Laymon’s American fan-base grew.
But — because life is as random and violent as … well, a Richard Laymon novel — Richard Laymon died of a massive heart attack in February 2001.
The Cellar (1980) is Richard Laymon’s first published novel, and one of his best (rivaled only by 1988’s Resurrection Dreams). It’s the first volume in The Beast House Series, and showcases Laymon’s lean writing style, penchant for fast-paced plots, and masterful use of dialogue.
The Cellar is a blend of creature-feature and crime thriller, like From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. A mother and daughter flee an abusive boyfriend just released from prison. But their car breaks down in remote Malcasa Point, home of a strange tourist attraction called The Beast House. According to local legend, several gruesome murders occurred in the The Beast House, committed by “demonic beasts” that allegedly still haunt the place.
Mom and Daughter cross paths with a Monster Bounty Hunter, a Creepy Old Man, and The Creepy Beast House Homeowners before Psycho Ex-Boyfriend makes the scene, and fireworks fly.
But things really go ass over teakettle when The Beasts show up, hellacious gargoyle-like creatures sporting enormous, gnarled erections. Creepy, indeed.
The true gem of The Cellar is its epilogue. Laymon’s crafts a twist(ed) ending using only dialogue that is one of the best endings in any novel ever. Period.
Long live. Richard Laymon! I am humbled by his greatness!
Even the stories in this collection that don’t aim to deliver more than a plot twist and a good scare are polished gems. And some pieces qualify as priceless masterpieces.
“Best New Horror” asks the question, who’s weirder: horror writers, horror readers, or the horror editors who bring the two together? Hill employs nice story-within-a-story framing techniques is this modern take on the classic EC-style horror tale.
“20th Century Ghosts” is the only traditional ghost story in this collection. It’s an effective ode to old movie houses and the people who love — and haunt — them.
“Better Than Home” and “Voluntary Committal” both deal with living with — and loving — people with mental disabilities. Hill demonstrates the challenges and mysteries of such relationships beautifully in this passage from “Voluntary Committal.”
“At times, my brother made me think of one of those tapered, horned conch shells, with a glossy pink interior curving away and out of sight into some tightly wound inner mystery.”
Great writers make it look easy, and Hill is no exception. Saying he has “a way with words,” is a massive understatement. Saying, “Hill has his way with words” is more accurate. He bends them to his will, and makes them do his bidding in tales like “The Cape” and “Last Breath.” These tales flow so naturally, it’s easy to overlook the skill required to create them.
The best writing crafts words to convey great ideas. This is demonstrated in “Pop Art,” another tale about loving a disabled person. In this case, the affliction is, well … inflatibility.
The narrator’s childhood friend is an blow-up boy named Art. (“Pop Art” … because he’s, like, a balloon. Get it?) It’s an absurd joke, (see SpongeBob SquarePants’ “Bubble Buddy” episode for another brilliant take on the same concept) except Hill renders it so poignantly, it becomes a masterful mediation on life, death, and life after death.
Art dreams of being an astronaut, traveling to worlds beyond this one, then realizes everyone gets the chance to live this dream with death’s ultimate release.
“You get an astronaut’s life whether you want it or not. Leave it all behind for a world you know nothing about. That’s just the deal.”
Art possesses a Zen-like serenity that eludes the narrator, a boy who is all too familiar with the world’s harsh cruelties. When Art tells him an angry dog named “Happy” would be more pleasant if it wasn’t penned up, the narrator disagrees.
“It is my belief that, as a rule, creatures of Happy’s ilk — I am thinking here of canines and men both — more often run free than live caged, and it is in fact a world of mud and feces they desire, a world with no Art in it, or anyone like him, a place where there is no talk of books or God or the worlds beyond this world, a place where the only communication is the hysterical barking of starving and hate-filled dogs.”
Hill hits it on the head, and out of the park with this description of life in a world of cruel, artless dunderheads.
If pressed to find a flaw in 20th Century Ghosts, my only critique would be too many of the stories use a child protagonist, which is a kind of writer’s crutch. Casting a kid as a hero can be a cheap literary trick because:
It allows you to dumb down your story, seeing things through “the eyes if a child.”
It gives your characters a reason to do stupid things, because, “they’re just kids!”
It hijacks the reader’s own childhood memories, imbuing the kid characters with an intimacy and nostalgia the writer didn’t earn.
Admittedly, this is more of a personal writing peeve than a criticism. Hill writes amazing stories. His ideas are fresh, and his characters are honest, engaging, and human no matter what their age.
Maybe it’s uncool to say, but Joe Hill has big shoes to fill — his father is Stephen King, after all. One of the reasons he writes under the name Joe Hill is because doesn’t want his work compared to his Dad’s, and to dispel any belief he was given a publishing contract because of his family heritage.
Joe Hill needn’t worry. He might be following in his old man’s footsteps, but he’s wearing snowshoes, and leaving pretty impressive tracks of his own.
This novel doesn’t have the same bare-knuckled emotional wallop of The Road, but it still qualifies as a modern masterpiece.
Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West is an old West cowboy novel, full of strange-yet-authentic language and characters. Like good concrete poetry, McCarthy’s work reflects the world he creates. A long ride across the hot desert, feels like a long, hot ride across the desert. Unfortunately, sometimes trudging through McCarthy’s dense prose can seem like an equally arduous task.
This book has been criticized for being ultra-violent, but the violence just seems extra harsh because it appears so suddenly out of McCarthy’s calm, lazy, sun-bleached landscape.
Judge Holden is unquestionably one of the most brilliantly rendered villains in all of literature. His observation of the world, his uncanny knowledge, and his seeming mastery of all things on earth, make him terrifyingly god-like. It’s The Judge’s world, we just live in it. And not for very long. The Judge makes Chigurh from McCormick’s later work, No Country For Old Men, seem like a pussy cat by comparison.
Blood Meridian is a fascinating, but challenging read, one that stays with you long after its final haunting pages.