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.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was fortunate to read an early draft of C.L. Holmes’s Our Great Abbess, and I enjoyed it so much, I asked if I could publish it. Read more about Abbess below, or go get it here.
Our Great Abbess blends historical fiction and religious horror to tell a compelling tale of cloistered nuns in a secluded mountain abbey, under siege by starvation, disease, marauders, and internal sabotage.
The young nuns of St. Agnes Convent face starvation, and there is no money in the treasury because the former prioress went mad and gave it all away. (Mad Reverend Mother Oxtierna has been banished to the abbey’s dungeon.) The Governing Mothers reach out to Baron Jack for help, but he denies them. A plague has wiped out much of the population of Europe, and war with a neighboring kingdom is imminent. The Baron can’t spare any resources for the Sisters unless he gets something in return: he wants one of the young nuns to serve as a sex slave for his army.
Shocked and disgusted the Mothers reject the Baron’s offer. But things go from bad to worse. The villagers think the woods surrounding the abbey are haunted by vengeful spirits and refuse to help. Friars from a brother are friendly, but also destitute. Scouting parties sent out for help have never returned.
Prioress-by-default Tabitha musters the courage to accept the Baron’s offer. She will sacrifice herself to the Baron’s savages so that the rest of the nuns can survive. But the Baron’s offer has changed. Now he wants all the nuns in the Abby as sex slaves, though Tabitha can spare one girl.
Our Great Abbess traverses some dark waters and doesn’t pull punches. Nightly rapes by masked marauders are just the beginning of the horrors the sisters of St. Agnes Convent must endure. But the novel ultimately empowers women rather than objectifies them.
Abbess is a book filled with powerful women who rise up no matter how desperate the situation or unrightous the indignity. Tabitha kicks ass, outwitting her male suppressors to keep the Abbey going at all cost.
“As Tabitha saw it, the convent was a transition point between the world and heaven.”
Tabitha is joined by a cast of equally strong and memorable women. Wicked and mad Oxtierna. The naïve but not-so-innocent Marta. Suspicious and conniving Isadore. Our Great Abbess is a big, sprawling novel, but the pacing is strong throughout, buoyed by a driving narrative, interesting sub-plots, and beautiful language.
The male supporting cast gets some of the books best lines, like these from a maudlin Baron Jack:
“It is inevitable. Life is just our fattening ourselves for the dirt maw, standing precariously on its lip, then it’s in we go.”
And Tabitha’s faithful servant Clovis contemplates the nature of suffering and God’s plan for each of us.
“There are no ‘supposed to be’s.’ God gives us what we are, and changes his mind on occasion, and we’re left to deal with the reality of it.”