A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay Book Review

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.


Imagine a normal household, a mom, a dad and two daughters – one 17-year old who is going through a goth phase and a curious and excitable 8 year-old who likes stories.

Imagine this household being broken up by what seems at first as a teenager suffering from mental illnesses (hearing voices, mood swings) and whose external manifestations get interpreted as possession from an evil spirit by the overly religious father. Imagine the media being brought in to film their struggle with the possessed girl and their interpretation of a millennial’s musings as “the devil”.

Marjorie kept texting, fingers crawling over the phone’s keyboard screen while she talked at the same time. “I’ll wait until you’re asleep because you never wake up when I’m there. I’m in your room every night, Merry. It’s so easy.”

I imagined her standing over my bed, pinching my nose shut, drawing on my hand, hovering her face close to mine, breathing my breaths.


This novel has the right markings to be a Gothic masterpiece with not just one but two unlikely heroes. The two sisters – one faking a possession in order to draw attention to their father who was becoming more and more fervent in his religious mutterings – the other a silent witness to everything going on but who managed to play a massive role in the family’s undoing. Perhaps only due to the manipulations of others, perhaps through unknowing ignorance.

Years later, the story of the exorcism is re-visited by an author who tracks down the surviving sister and gets her take on things. The story is clear and media-fake at the same time.

The writing is original, mixing a few genres and methods – from girl-blogs to interview questions, to memoir-style quality, to found-footage description. It’s good. Even the self-analysis is spot on.

The Possession fits neatly into the Gothic tradition, starting with the Barrett House itself. The house is a maze, a labyrinth. We can’t know its map because it doesn’t have one. The Barrett House (not the real one, but the one as presented in the TV show; I want to make this distinction as clear as possible) is as mysterious and foreboding as the castles of The Castle of Otranto and Wuthering Heights . The Barrett House is as dark and as confusing as The Shining ’s Overlook Hotel (check out the Escher-esque map of the hotel in the insanely fun Room 237 ), or Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, or the ever-expanding house of Mark Danieleweski’s House of Leaves . The Barrett House is an important character of The Possession and it tells us secrets as well, if we pay attention.


What I liked about this story was not the is-she-or-is-she-not-possessed type of question. It was the obvious money-grab from the media company who was willing to cover a girl with a mental illness being subjected to abuse from her parents and from the church people.

The pilot episode was the Discovery Channel’s highest rated debut ever. So I’m told. Already, after two episodes, everyone involved, everyone in this room is making fistfuls of money, right? And just imagine all those gawd-fearin’ sheep-in-training out there watching our show, itching to come back to the church, soon to be saying their hallelujahs and filling donation baskets.”

Yes, they had a psychologist involved, but instead of treating the obvious case of schizophrenia, he went along with the priest’s description of the girl not being herself and a tale of the supernatural.

The only sane person in this bunch is the teenager and her little sister. The mother just cries and slinks away from it all and the father is basking in the glory of being the center of attention – of how he’s such a hero for coping with an obvious test to his faith.

The creepy vibe of the story stems not just from the mystery of how it got so bad that they had to have a priest perform an exorcism – but the way that Marjorie scares her little sister by taking things out of her room or slowly moving things about.

“Maybe it is the same. I don’t know. Maybe the room changed when you left. Maybe yesterday my rug and bed were on the ceiling. Maybe my room changed and changed and kept on changing, and then the room changed back right before you came in. Maybe your room is like mine and changes all the time too, but only in secret so you don’t notice.”

Her scary talk extends to pushing the boundaries with her parents too. And challenging the biggest bully in their household – the father – on his one tool: religion.

Marjorie said, “How do you know for sure that in heaven, the ghosts of the people you love are real?”

“I’m not sure what you’re asking.”

“I’m asking how would you know if you were really talking with the ghost of your father, of Grampy, say, and not some demon totally faking it? What if that demon was perfectly impersonating Grampy? That’d be pretty horrible, yeah? Picture it: You’re in heaven with who you think is Grampy. The ghost looks like him and talks like him and acts like him, but how can you be sure it’s really him? And as more and more time passes you realize you can never be sure. You can never be sure that any of the other ghosts around you are not all disguised demons. So your poor soul is forever in doubt, expecting that in any one moment of eternity there will be some terrible, awful, horrible change in Grampy’s face as he embraces you.”

Yep, that is some scary mentality and I can see why the parents should be concerned. But from talk to actually believing in a possession, there is a huge leap of .. faith. They do try to keep a sense of normalcy by having dinners together and talking about school. But when you’re dealing with a depressed teenager, there’s not much you can get out of it.

b399a9bf7176b365f234c6edddbf8e1eMarjorie complied. The removal of her hood was a shocking revelation. Her skin was gray, the color of the mushrooms that grew around the snaking tangle of tree roots out back. The circles under her eyes were dark and deep. Her black hair was a dead octopus leaking and sliding off her scalp. Whiteheads dotted her chin and the sides of her nose.

The younger sister watches all of this and she is both afraid of her older sister and also loves her – wanting to help if she can – but only makes things worse as she goes to the TV Crew’s confessional and blurts out some lies in order to get them to stay so they would get some money for treatment.

Besides serving as the patriarchal-breakdown theme of the show (as I already discussed in GREAT detail), the show’s opening explains (without having to spell it out for everyone) how a family would possibly consider allowing a network to broadcast their living nightmare: a teenage daughter going through a particularly nasty, devastating psychotic break, while believing (or pretending, yeah?) she was possessed by a demon, and a stereotypical demon at that. Let me say it simply: The Barretts were about to default on their mortgage and lose the house. They needed cash, and quick! The show’s producers paid them that quick cash for their televised pounds of flesh.

From the little girl’s point of view, the sunroom “had become a sundial measuring the geological age of [her] psychological torture”. When she is older and much wiser, she can understand the absolute evil that was in their house. Not her sister but the ignorance around her.

“Ideas. I’m possessed by ideas. Ideas that are as old as humanity, maybe older, right? Maybe those ideas were out there just floating around before us, just waiting to be thought up. Maybe we don’t think them, we pluck them out from another dimension, or another mind.” Marjorie seemed so pleased with herself, and I wondered if this was something new she just thought up or something she’d told someone before.

They don’t know it’s a fake not even when Marjorie declares that one of the demons inside of her was from a well known creature from Lovecraft and Asimov. She reads sci-fi, she has access to the internet. Why not confound the priests with actual exorcism rite details and the wording used to perform it? The mind-play was amazing.

Years later, as the story approaches its climax, there are two things which are still a mystery – was Marjorie levitating for at least a few seconds over the stairs. And who exactly killed the mom, the dad and Marjorie?

To be honest, and all the external influences aside, there are some parts of this that I remember in great, terrible detail, so much so I fear getting lost in the labyrinth of memory. There are other parts of this that remain as unclear and unknowable as someone else’s mind, and I fear that in my head I’ve likely conflated and compressed timelines and events.

I won’t spoil it but it’s a very good ending and it has a bit of a twist to make it interesting.


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