“You have to remember all my stories because there are–there are all these ghosts filling my head and I’m just trying to get them out.”
Paul Tremblay’s “A Head Full of Ghosts” is a novel formed from the meeting of supernatural horror and family drama. Blending past and present, memory and truth, the story finds its tension and its horror in pervasive uncertainty. A multitude of voices speak throughout the novel–some directly and some only subtly. But it is in the conflict of these voices that the narrative plays out an the truth can (possibly?) be found.
The truth is never a certain thing–however much the characters sometimes profess to know it. From the first pages of the novel, fifteen years after the central events, Merry explains that “there are other parts of this that remain as unclear and unknowable as someone else’s mind.” In looking back, Merry confesses that popular culture, conflicting accounts and theories, and her own memories have all potentially merged to color Merry’s own recollections of what she experienced.
And the novel as a whole is filled with uncertain shiftings. Merry regularly changes the cardboard house in her room, and later the rooms in her apartment. Marjorie’s room changes, and the questions lingers of when and how it happens. “Maybe your room is like mine and changes all the time too, but only in secret so you don’t notice.” Items move, unsettling events take place–and it is not always clear who is responsible. The unfolding narrative of the Barrett household is a narrative formed by official reports, reality show editing, and the memory of an eight-year-old girl who never fully understood what she was witnessing.
The novel is aware of this uncertainty and makes full use of it, resting comfortably in the place between things that are not understood and truth that may or may not be remembered correctly.
But as uncertain as the truth may be, there are a wealth of voices willing to weigh in, and this is where the novel finds much of its power. Merry herself has two distinct voices–herself as a child, and her adult self reflecting on events with some measure of distance.
Alongside Merry’s recounting, the reader hears from Karen, who provides critical and cultural analysis of the reality show rendition of the Barrett family’s experiences. Through Karen, a wealth of other voices are introduced as well: the pop culture voices that are inescapable, that color and direct perception of the novel’s events. Most prominent are the horror movies Karen references, breaking down their influences and deconstructing the very idea of the possession narrative as entertainment. It’s a meta-approach within Tremblay’s novel that works on multiple levels for the characters and for the reader. The very idea of documenting the family’s struggles invites analysis, and Karen’s blog is the avenue through which a host of external voices are examined.
But Merry is not the only voice speaking to direct experience. Both Barrett parents have their own approaches to the situation–often finding themselves in the direct conflict between faith and emotion, practicality and fear.
And then there are those on the periphery–the film crew, Rachel the interviewer, the implied authorities who try to intervene. These figures are left to look in on events and people they do not fully understand as they try to sort through the uncertainty for their own ends.
Many of the voices are personal–shaped by individual perspective and motive–but these voices are matched against cultural views that seek to explain and solve the problems faced by the Barrett family. Throughout the story, medial thought and religious zealotry combine and conflict as they seek to explain Marjorie’s situation with as much certainty as they can muster. The doctors, the priests, the protestors–each group is driven by a larger body of thought formed and heightened over years. And these voices do everything they can to be heard over the chaos already afflicting the Barrett family.
Finally, there are the central voices within Marjorie’s own head. Marjorie describes the voices and stories she cannot escape–voices seemingly from somewhere else that she wants to silence. This multitude of voices manifests throughout the story in both subtle and direct ways. Marjorie’s seeming possession includes moments of multiple voices speaking with conflicting and unsettling freedom as Marjorie acts directly upon the unfolding events.
But Tremblay gives attention to voice on a much deeper level–Marjoire’s own “teenage girl” voice is just as important as the voices put on by both Marjorie and Merry. Impersonations, deceptions, jokes, and references–the voices are central to the story and add even more uncertainty to the search for truth. But the ability to speak remains important. Some of the characters’ greatest struggles are against being silenced. One of Merry’s greatest fears throughout the novel is the loss of her tongue, and with it, her voice. The voices want to be heard.
And this is why the novel works as well as it does–it does not seek a stance on truth or offer many clear answers. Rather, it is a novel of false memories and intentional deceptions–a story of multitude characters and voices coming into conflict around a single event that not one of them fully understands. For every shocking revelation that comes to light, even more questions linger in the shadows. And the reader finds some frustration in trying to answer those questions because the entire narrative is filtered through a lens–both literally and figuratively. Through memory, through cultural analysis, through personal perception, through the literal cameras of the reality show–there is a constant awareness of the narrative being guided by those invested in its outcome, deepening the uncertainty about what is true, what can be believed.
Merry’s distance from events allows for reflection and brief moments of humor–with her child’s voice giving the story a deeper character, allowing Merry and the reader to embrace the uncertainty with greater faith that someone, at least, may understand what is happening. But understanding is not guaranteed–and what certainty the reader may begin to develop as the novel progresses is regularly undermined by the characters and the larger mysteries of the novel.
With abounding uncertainty, the voices of “A Head Full of Ghosts” all jostle for the space to tell their story–and it is up to the reader to listen carefully, and decide from there what to believe. And what we as readers believe–what voices we choose to listen to–will affect how we view the story. After certain moments, certain revelations–there is simply no going back to the way things were.
“And despite how friendly and motherly she’s being, the way she looks at me now, it’s different.”
Some truths, however uncertain they may be, cannot be forgotten.