I love October. Designing tables with sparkly skeletons, neon orange pumpkins, and about a trillion copies of the Berenstain Bears Trick or Treat is pretty much what I would consider my best day ever. I love the crisp, fall weather, the prospect of candy at every turn, and, of course, that little something horrific in the air that keeps things interesting. I’m a horror movie fanatic, which only means that October is pretty much my month.
That’s why it’s so shocking that I’ve never gotten into horror literature. I brought Stephen King’s IT on a plane ride once, and was so traumatized by the opening scene that I stuck it under the seat in front of me and never looked back (coincidentally, other members of the RoscoeBooks staff have had a similarly colored past with this title).
This season, I thought, “let bygones be bygones!” and I fearlessly dove into Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, the title that caused the Maestro of Horror Mr. Stephen King himself to declare, “Scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.”
Well, holy cow. If it’s good enough for SK, it’s certainly good enough for me. Potentially TOO good…
But I lit some candles, stuck my arm wrist-deep in a bag of candy corn, and embraced my fears. Some more cowardly souls may have been jostled by the inscription from Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (arguably one of the most haunting stories in American Literature and, fascinatingly, the origin of the word “creep” as a verb), but I was not.
Well, not really.
Sisters Marjorie and Merry live in a battered old house in New England when Marjorie, the older of the two starts displaying strange behavior. And that’s putting it lightly. Cue the psychologists, psychotherapists, priests, and even a TV crew trying to solve the riddle of what’s gone wrong with 14-year-old Marjorie Barrett.
I won’t spoil any of the shocks, but Tremblay does a great job at conjuring images that are terrifying enough to stick with you for days without sacrificing a wonderfully plotted novel with compassionate and multidimensional characters.
What I loved about this novel is that it nods to all the great horror set-ups without any hint of cynicism or pretension. It’s a great exorcist story that doesn’t feel the need to completely uproot the fable. Money problems, creepy old house, enough suspicion to keep the line between fantasy and reality creepily blurred; it’s all there. Tremblay doesn’t mock the conventions; instead, he goes about setting up a spooky addition to the well-populated canon of exorcist stories. There’s a trust he garners in the audience by resisting the urge to transform the story from a great tale into a cutting-edge commentary.
Furthermore, Tremblay packs a punch with this novel without descending into some of the morbid, disturbing cracks of modern fiction. There is very little gore, pretty mild sexuality (all things in the genre considered), and a truly heartbreaking, show-stopping twist that doesn’t force you to suspend your disbelief in order to reap the scary rewards.
Tremblay’s novel is more like a great psychological page-turner with haunting overtones than an out-and-out horror novel. Yet both amateurs and veterans of the spookier side of literature will find something to sink their teeth into. There’s enough creativity in the plot itself to make this a truly enjoyable novel, which is a shockingly hard thing to accomplish.
“A Head Full of Ghosts” worked perfectly to creep me out during the furious 48-hours when I was tearing through this book. And I would be lying if I told you I haven’t been sleeping with the closet light on for the past week. To steal a line from the iconic Joey Tribbiani, this is a real “keep it in the freezer” type of novel. What can I say? Turns out Stephen King has a real eye for horror… Who knew?