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A Head Full of Ghosts

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Horror (2015)
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.

286 pages, Hardcover

First published June 2, 2015

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About the author

Paul Tremblay

112 books8,434 followers
Paul Tremblay has won the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy, and Massachusetts Book awards and is the author of The Pallbearers Club (coming 2022), Survivor Song, Growing Things, The Cabin at the End of the World, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, A Head Full of Ghosts, and the crime novels The Little Sleep and No Sleep Till Wonderland. His essays and short fiction have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly online, and numerous year’s-best anthologies. He has a master’s degree in mathematics and lives outside Boston with his family. He is represented by Stephen Barbara, InkWell Management.

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5 stars
19,073 (25%)
4 stars
28,776 (39%)
3 stars
18,669 (25%)
2 stars
5,266 (7%)
1 star
1,580 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 9,973 reviews
Profile Image for Matthew.
1,219 reviews8,839 followers
December 9, 2016
I rarely give one star reviews. I am sure Paul Tremblay is a nice guy, but after two of his books, I cannot stand him as a writer.

The story in this book was silly and contrived. The characters were blah and I didn't believe their motivation for anything they did. If someone got mad, it felt forced. If something weird occurred it felt like it was just there so something could be weird.

The book is not thrilling. It is not scary. It is bad Exorcist fan fiction. I am not sure if anyone was ever really possessed, but at no point did I care. I can't even say it tries hard but falls flat . . . I don't think it even tries at all!

Sometimes I can say that a book is not for me, but I can see how others like it. I can't say that with this one. If you like it, that's okay . . . but I don't know why.

Sorry, Paul - again, I am sure you are a great guy, but I am done with your books!

Side note: Ironically enough, this book is the six-hundred and sixty sixth book I have listed as read on Goodreads
Profile Image for karen.
3,979 reviews170k followers
June 19, 2018
paul tremblay interviews me, or "me" here:


this book is about a fourteen-year-old girl named marjorie, her eight-year-old sister merry, and the events leading up to marjorie's exorcism. your attention, i have it, yes? this is both a horror novel and a psychological suspense novel, but then it goes the extra step into self-referential metafiction in a way that is natural and not gimmicky-annoying, probably because that part involves a delightful character named karen brissette. on the one hand, this rests firmly in the canon of possession lit, and all the expectations are met: the voices, the vomit, the levitation, the inappropriate sexual acts, but there's a cheekiness to it at all times - a little wink as it slightly adjusts these elements so that they are present, but slightly "off." this isn't played for horror, more for unease and a sort of evaluation of the possession genre itself.

the book is mostly told through the eyes of merry - now twenty-three years old - meeting with a woman who is writing a book about marjorie and the family's experiences. it cuts between merry-now and merry's immersive recollections of the events that destroyed her family. when marjorie began acting erratically, her parents sent her to a psychiatrist and she was put on medication. when her condition worsened, and events more sinister and inexplicable occurred, her unemployed father turned to the church in desperation. under the direction of the inscrutable father wanderly, an exorcism was prescribed and somehow the whole thing became a media event and was filmed for television as a reality show. since we are relying on the memory of an eight-year-old who was kept out of the planning stages, the how of this is unclear but it doesn't come across as implausible or silly, the way it does in what i just wrote. the family was struggling financially, and this helped them out of a tight spot. desperate people do desperate things, things they might later regret. so their house is overrun by camera crews, marjorie continues to creep through the hallways, and merry tries not to get lost in all of it, whatever "it" is.

essentially, it boils down to what all exorcism scenarios are beneath their shrieking theatrics: what is "really" happening - is it madness? is it actually demonic possession? is it the cry for help of an abused child? this is a novel concerned more with perception/perspective than with truth. there are no easy answers here, and you can draw your own conclusions: the supernatural explanation is just as plausible as the psychological, but no matter which way you lean at the end, there are prickly stickers that will make you doubt your choice.

but tremblay adds another layer on top of this familiar storyline with the reality show element, and in life's delicious synchronicity my reading of the book coincided with my starting to watch black mirror, so all the themes of suffering-as-entertainment and the complicity of the viewer in demanding and therefore perpetuating another person's humiliation is fresh in my mind. two things right off the bat - he doesn't fall into the ready trap of either satire or preachiness. this is not wry chuckling at reality teevee and the ethical ramifications are put forth in very natural ways by characters who would indeed question these things, so it doesn't feel like reader-directed "shame on you" (which makes it better than black mirror, but i've only seen two episodes)

and now let's get to the best part of the book: MEEEEEE!!!

the karen brissette character writes a horror blog which is running a 15-year-anniversary feature on the show. it's not ME-me, but it's clearly written by someone who has read a review or two of mine. while i would never use the word "funky" or ever say anything in r'lyehian, there is a very familiar enthusiasm and a chatty, distracted voice that both delighted me and made me squirm a little when i was reading it in my head, in my voice. i'm a little alarmed that i am so easy to parody/spoof. it actually reads like a mash-up of me and pms, where the thinky parts sound like her and the puppy-energy parts sound like me. and i so cringed when "karen" dropped that das unheimliche thing because YES, that is something i have done WHEN APPROPRIATE but i did feel a miniature shame for it to be pointed out.

and except for the ugly capital letters sprinkled throughout her blog posts, there's something uncanny (DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE? <---- also something the book reminds me that i do. stalk much, tremblay?) about the voice:

And we the viewers watch from this eerily liminal vantage point. I mean, we're there with them but not really there. We watch from the spaces between their spaces, and that's always where the monster dwells. Dwells, I say!!!

SCARRRRYYYY! I mean, damn, so here we are in the opening minutes of the final episode and we discover that we actually know jack and shit about the house's layout and ARRGGGH, OUR HEADSSSS ARE EXPLODINGGGGG!

so, yeah. it's pretty sweet.

"karen's" role is to place the reality show's situation in a historical and pop cultural context and draw our attention to what the show (and by extension, the book itself) owes to its predecessors. she brings up salem, The Exorcist, House of Leaves, The Haunting of Hill House; all of those literary and filmic touchpoints and she analyzes what it is we find so compelling about these kinds of narratives.

because our fascination with this shit isn't new. the salem witch trials were a precursor of reality teevee - young girls playing for cameras that hadn't yet been invented, spectators shivering with shock and can't-look-away revulsion as fornication with demons was described in little-girl lisps. and there's plenty to say (and karen does) about the misogyny inherent in exorcism-narratives as white men hover over virginal girls writhing on a bed spluttering obscenities and there is such glee in her deconstruction of the show - it's a really fun sort of lit crit that i anxiously hope is something has some basis in the efforts of her namesake.

it's not often that you get critical commentary of a book in a book as it is happening. but it's a neat little trick. there are so many opportunities to call out the references - the sunroom with its yellow wallpaper inspires a discussion of gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper; not in a "look how clever i am being" way, but in an almost exhausted way, in the same manner marjorie recites the steps of the exorcism or the details of her possession. we've seen this. we know how this goes. we are steeped in references, influenced by pop culture, there's a precedent in everything we do, but the calling attention to it ironically renders it novel and strange.

the idea of audience is very important here. not just the audience of the show, or the fact that watching the show turns merry into an audience of her own life's experiences, but the fact that marjorie's symptoms intensify when merry is in the room, the way people being filmed amplify their behaviors for the benefit of the imagined viewers, the way the presence of cameras can stifle natural behavior and can modify a dynamic as a subtle power play.

there's also some commentary on how media manipulates our memories, but also how we manipulate them all on our own. in one of my favorite quiet scenes, grown-merry is sitting with rachel, the writer, going over some of the key moments in merry's past:

Sitting here in the coffee shop with her outlining her research findings, I'm getting the sense that she's hiding something from me. I don't know how that would be possible.

She wasn't there when it happened. And I was.

but memories are not always the truest truths. merry was young, shielded from parts of her family's life, fuzzy on the details, confused over what she saw, and it's just a nice moment that highlights that distance we all have from our own past, and how we interpret our memories in frequently incorrect ways.

there are lots of fantastic little details here - how merry never got over her childish need for attention/affection and the way she behaved around the crew as an eight-year-old; pleasing the reporters, playing for the camera is mirrored in her relationship with rachel as a grown woman. she's fragile, arrested, vulnerable, and with good cause.

it's a surprisingly meaty book - much more than a typical horror novel but one that will nonetheless satisfy the discerning horror fan. plus - a version of meeeeeee!! which is something stephen king has yet to do, to his detriment.




i would like to play myself in this movie, please!!!


paul tremblay is a clever man.

this book features a character named karen brissette who says writes things like:

I promise I'll get to the fun gory horror stuff eventually, but you have to indulge me first... BECAUSE KAREN SAYS SO!!!

i mean, that karen's slavishness to the capital "i" aside, there's no way i can give this fewer than five stars, is there?

clever, clever man...

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Kat.
265 reviews79.6k followers
April 13, 2020
not good also known as pretty bad 😒
Profile Image for megs_bookrack.
1,538 reviews9,830 followers
June 3, 2023
A Head Full of Ghosts is CREEPY AF. We love to see it!!

This made my horror-loving heart so damn happy. Once I picked it up, I could NOT stop reading!

I decided to start this whilst on a very dark flight home from the Dominican Republic. I was reading it on my kindle paperwhite and that setting definitely upped the creep factor a full 10-points.

I was jumping at the slightest noise and just wishing I could turn on a light!

Life Advice:

Read this in the darkest room possible. Candlelight this bitch if you have too!

One of the things that has really stuck with me about this book is the format. I just felt like it was such a clever way to tell this particular story.

As my first Tremblay, I was hella impressed. It's safe to say, I will continue to pick up anything he writes!

Profile Image for Nilufer Ozmekik.
2,203 reviews40.8k followers
December 2, 2022
5 thrilling, scary stars!
It’s official Robert Downey Jr and his beautiful wife (Team Downey) are bringing out the movie adaption. Once upon a time in Hollywood’s Margaret Qualley ( Andie MacDowell’s daughter) got the leading part as Scott Cooper accepted to direct the movie! Get ready to scare the hell of yourselves!

So we’re gonna be able to watch this terrifying story and sh*t our pants! What an amazing way to spend your weekend night! ( already stocked my boozes and munchies! )

This book should be categorized as a smartly written masterpiece! I loved the pop culture references. Since I was ten I have been reading horror books and watching thriller movies so I loved the references and comments that writer used. ( I think I may have read all those books and watched all those movies he mentioned) I loved his technique to use all these selected thriller elements and his vision to combine them and put all these elements at the right places just like finishing a masterpiece puzzle!
Can’t wait to read more books of this writer.
Profile Image for Chelsea Humphrey.
1,440 reviews78.1k followers
February 6, 2019
This book blew me away. I might have to come back and alter my review because I'm not entirely sure how to process this book.

All I will say about the plot is it revolves around the Barrett family and we are trying to solve the puzzle of 14 year old Marjorie's illness. Is she mentally ill? Is she possessed by a demon? Anything more would spoil it all and I refuse to do such a thing!

This is definitely a book that will stay with me. While it's not overly gory or "scary" in the traditional sense, it IS severely creepy and disturbing with a slow building sense of urgency. I found myself flipping pages more quickly as the ending drew near.

I also enjoyed the blogging entries which had a very familiar air about them. :) I really enjoyed Karen's two cents and felt like I was reading thoughts from a personal friend.

I truly believe this book made its mark on me by how I still feel connected to this tragic family; they were haunting and sad. Well done Mr. Tremblay for concocting such a terrifying and tragic story that kept me turning the pages. I'm looking forward to checking out his other book.
Profile Image for Blake Crouch.
Author 82 books45.4k followers
November 21, 2016
I'll keep this short and sweet: one of the best horror novels (maybe the best) I've ever read.
Profile Image for Zain.
1,379 reviews141 followers
June 6, 2023
If You Believe In God, Are You Crazy?

Marjorie is fourteen years old, and life is turning against her. Her health is troubling and medical doctors have labeled her schizophrenic.

But the family priest disagrees and based on his examinations, he believes that she is possessed.

The parents agree to an exorcism, but because of money shortage they reluctantly allow the filming of Marjorie’s exorcism.

Just eight years old, little Merry may not truly understand what is happening, but years later she gives a writer her opinion. And the news she give is shocking!

Hopefully, I haven’t given away too much information, because I want you to enjoy reading this story.

So give it a try. You’ll enjoy yourself. Just like I did.

Four fabulous stars. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Profile Image for Rebecca.
237 reviews208 followers
September 24, 2022
“It was so dark it was like nothing was there in the room but us. Only the nothing was actually something because it filled my eyes and lungs and it sat on my shoulders.”

Eight year old Merry and fourteen year old Marjorie are as close as two sisters can be. Marjorie loves telling young Merry stories with the main character always being named after her. When the stories take an evil turn, Marjorie's parents also notice a change in her behaviour. Doctors seem unable to help and she is eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. The family priest seems to disagree with the diagnosis and believes Marjorie is possessed. Eventually the family agree to participate in a possession-themed reality TV series to "save" Marjorie through a televised exorcism.

The story is told from the perspective of Merry fifteen years later as she chronicles the making of the show and reveals a hidden truth about her family.

Much of this story is deliberately ambiguous, so you never quite know what's real and what isn't. Merry’s view of what happened fifteen years ago is also filtered through her schizophrenic, deeply disturbed older sister and her desperate parents, who tried to keep her as sheltered as possible.

A Head Full of Ghosts is a disturbing account of a family's descent into madness. If you enjoy psychological horror, this book is for you. Full of horror references and tributes, if you’re a horror nerd like me you will love this one.

Highly Recommend
Profile Image for Richard.
984 reviews360 followers
January 12, 2016
I was pretty surprised by how forgettable this one was. It's one of the more popular horror novels this year, and the premise (about a young girl named Merry witnessing her family dealing with the possible demonic possession of their daughter and their choice to not only perform an exorcism but to film it for a reality show) is a set up for some chilling entertainment. But I was uninterested through most of this book.

Much of it has to do with the terribly inconsistent pacing and lack of narrative urgency. When I looked at the bottom of my Kindle and realized that I was coming up on the 50% mark with not much having transpired and with no excitement about continuing, I knew I was in for trouble. Some of the problems with the pacing comes from the book's structure and framing device, where we glean the story by switching back and forth from an adult Merry dictating the story of what happened to her family to an author named Rachel doing research for a true crime novel, which leads to the POV of an 8-year-old Merry during the traumatizing events. But there's also the POV of an annoying blogger dissecting the infamous reality show that documented the events. The blogger sections specifically prove to be mostly unnecessary. I mean, yea I get it, with these sections we get an idea of what the world knows about the events through the show and the fact that they differ from what might have actually happened but...*yawn*...the same thing could've been done (and to an extent was being done) in the Merry/Rachel sequences much more efficiently and with less pages of pop culture references, less shout-outs to horror and crime icons, and less words in all caps.

And as much as I understand choosing to use the little girl POV for the bulk of the novel, it ultimately became a chore, and all the time spent on setting up the 8-year-old-girl-world took away from the real reason that I picked the book up in the first place. For example, what was up with Merry refusing to speak to anyone and using notes to talk? Ultimately it didn't really amount to anything other than ruining the pacing in what should've been a really engaging, pivotal chapter.

The dialogue also took away a bit and didn't feel genuine, coming across as overly formal and stilted, especially in the conversations between Merry and the writer Rachel. The theory that most reviewers seem to have by the end () is much more than a theory to me and is pretty blatantly spelled out for us in the final scene: with the " lines popping up every paragraph. This reveal actually makes the book slightly more interesting, but comes too little and too late to redeem the rest of what could've been a nifty little piece.
Profile Image for Rebbie.
142 reviews111 followers
September 30, 2018
I didn't know whether to give this book 5 stars or 1, so I'm meeting in the middle.

Yes, it scared me. In fact, it's exactly 2:41 am and I'm awake because of this book. And I have to pee, but I'm too scared to go to the bathroom by myself and if I wake up my fiance to turn on the bathroom light and wait for me, he will think I'm some sort of mixture between stupid and crazy. And he would probably be right.

There are some problems with this book, including the pacing, the believability of the 8 year old's suspiciously adult-like explanations and descriptions, and the unnecessary addition of Karen the blogger. I love the real Karen from Goodreads that this character was modeled after, but it doesn't change the fact that the author used the blogger to explain things in the story because he must think we're incapable of following his story on our own, and that we have the IQ of a potato.

Oh, but he shows great promise though. Never underestimate the power of fear that can be drilled into people's hearts when telling stories about mental illness. The schizophrenia wasn't the frightening issue for me. It was the paranoia.

It wasn't the idea of demon possession, either. It was the possibility that paranoia can cause unspeakable evil to be committed in this world. There are people who are not to be trusted, and whether or not it's their fault is irrelevant.

Just the possibility that someone can smile while they commit horrific acts is enough to make my blood run cold.
Profile Image for Char.
1,638 reviews1,488 followers
July 30, 2015
3.5 stars!

I enjoyed this novel of possession/psychological horror/reality television, but I didn't out and out love it. It's almost impossible to tell you why without spoilers, but I'll try. 
Here's what I liked the most:
-the shout outs to other authors in the dark fiction genre. I'm sure I didn't pick up on them all, but I love being made to feel like I'm in on something;
-the references to other characters in dark fiction classics-one of which is glaringly obvious, and since she was a most fascinating character to me in her first appearance, she was fascinating to me in this one too;
-the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle references to reality television and what it does, not only to viewers but to those being filmed.
What I did not like was:

-the slow pacing at the beginning. I came close to setting aside the book at one point.
-The blog posts. I can't get into any depth here for fear of spoilers-but I can say that the blog posts didn't bother me until the end-in regards to these posts-it didn't ring true for me.
-nothing truly original was brought to the genre of dark fiction.
Overall, I enjoyed this story-mostly because I was always kept guessing and that doesn't happen often enough. I thought the characterization of the two sisters was well done, and their relationship was interesting. I' m glad that I read this book, and I think that for those unfamiliar with decades of dark fiction, it may prove to be a great read. For those readers that have been reading horror and dark fiction for years, it may prove to be just a good read and there's nothing wrong with that.
Profile Image for Peter.
2,626 reviews476 followers
September 13, 2020
The Exorcist revisited, a head full of horror novels, a reality TV show, a blog, a narrator and an author, Rachel, who listens to this incredible story. Well, I liked all the references to The Exorcist and wondered if the story here around Majorie and Merry was staged by Majorie from beginning to end. Who is the real obsessed here? Does religion bring salvation or does it escalate the situation to the worse? Does joblessness lead into demonic obsession? A very interesting novel written in a modern but sometimes a bit confusing way. To many layers within that story, a bit too constructed. I like all the references to The Exorcist (fantastic novel and film). This book can be regarded as kind of Exorcist 4.0. The reference to The Thing by John Carpenter was also great. The ending was very disturbing and cutting. Didn't think the story would take such a twist. If you like dark stories like The Exorcist you definitely should read this modernized version. But to be honest, I prefer the original Blatty novel. Nevertheless highly recommended!
Profile Image for Kayla Dawn.
291 reviews896 followers
August 6, 2019
I wasn't necessarily scared while reading this, but I was definitely entertained.

I loved that the story didn't take itself too seriously (it actually made fun of itself quite often lol)
Profile Image for Janie.
1,062 reviews
December 18, 2015
I had high expectations for this novel. I had read Paul Tremblay's collection of short stories, In the Mean Time, earlier this year, and I greatly enjoyed it. A Head Full of Ghosts exceeded my expectations.

The novel revolves around the Barretts, a middle class suburban family. When the elder of the two daughters, Marjorie, begins exhibiting odd behavior, the family becomes concerned. As Marjorie's behavior becomes exceeding bizarre, psychology and religion become involved. Is Marjorie having a mental breakdown? Or is she possessed by a demon? The family, desperately in need of financial assistance, accepts an offer to take part in a television show. The show will culminate in Marjorie's exorcism.

The story is told by the very likable younger sister, Merry, who is eight years old at the time of the occurrences. She witnesses the strange behavior of her beloved older sister, but is torn. Is Marjorie faking her supposed possesion, or is she truly out of control of her actions? Marjorie often frightens Merry with her erratic and disturbing behavior. Meantime, the family dynamic is falling apart. The constant presence of the tv show crew , priests, and the development of protesting crowds outside of their home do nothing to alleviate the constant stress on the family.

This arresting novel has the reader questioning the nature of evil. Does it really exist, or is it a product of human nature? Who is the real devil here? And can the nature of our reality ever truly be explained?

Do not expect to get all of the answers here. We are taken on a journey with constant twists and turns, and the ending is, literally, chilling. I enjoyed every step of the way. The writing is impeccable - with one exception. Since it only appeared a few times in the book (and for good reason), I found the blog to be overly "loud" in comparison with the steady writing of the rest of the book. But I can't complain. I got more enjoyment here than I bargained for. 5 stars!
Profile Image for Gabby.
1,236 reviews26.7k followers
October 13, 2021
3.5 stars
I enjoyed the way this was written, I liked the back and forth between the two timeliness, and I enjoyed the story about the sisters and their relationship. Some parts of it were genuinely creepy — especially with the audio and listening to the girls voice change when she’s possessed. But overall I don’t really enjoy reading about exorcisms and I don’t think it’s my kind of horror 🤷🏻‍♀️
Profile Image for Greg.
1,109 reviews1,844 followers
February 9, 2015
This is a kind of weird experience.

Granted it’s not the first time that Karen has popped up in a book as a character (I can think of two others), but this is the first time that she appears quite a bit (at least by name, as the character isn’t actually supposed to be her). We’ll get back to this later on the review though.

The book is about a family that was once featured on a reality tv show called Possession, which was as the name suggests about demonic possession. The show featured a New England family. Mom, dad, two daughters. And the eldest, a fourteen year-old, was having some kind of mental breakdown and may or may not have been possessed by demons. The reality tv show aired for six episodes and featured the decision of the Catholic Church to perform an exorcism on her.

The story is told from the perspective of the younger daughter about fifteen (I think, that would be about right) years after the events that happened. She’s telling her story to a writer whose writing a book about the television show, the family and the aftermath of the TV show. Exactly what the book is though isn’t clear.

There are scenes with the twenty-something year old Merry (youngest daughter) talking to the author and giving an adult perspective about what had happened; but most of the book is told from the point of view of Merry as a child. These parts stay in character mostly, with only a few moments where she will foreshadow about things that she could only know from a later vantage point.

The third thread of the story is a series of blog posts written by Karen Brissette (aka The Last Girl Online (which is a name I’ve been thinking of calling her from now on, never again using her real name)) for a horror blog. In it she is deconstructing the episodes of the show and using a lot of words that the real Karen would get angry at me if I ever used in a review or conversation. It’s quite funny to me to see her written that way.

The book is excellent. I went into it thinking that it would be amusing but more of interest because of the character of Karen; but I ended up loving the book.

The idea of a novel about a demonic possession isn’t really all that interesting to me. I don’t know if I’m in the minority but I never found The Exorcist that scary or interesting. Either the book or the movie. Maybe in the words of The Usual Suspects, it’s because the devil has played his greatest trick on me by making me believe he doesn’t exist; but the idea of people being possessed by demons I just don’t believe in enough to find it that scary—I guess i just believe that people have enough reasons and causes to go psychotic and do fucked up shit that I just never think of that they are becoming the vessel of a literal incarnate of pure evil.

As a horror novel it’s not all that scary, but the subject matter definitely puts it into that camp—but more in the meta-horror type arena. There is a massive awareness of the genre that it’s writing into, especially in the blog posts by the Last Girl Online that everything is situated within the context of films like The Exorcist, all those possession films that came out a few years ago, The Shining, Evil Deads, etc. Using those to frame the story there are definite questions that keep coming up about the reality of what we are being told (in the fictional universe, it never tries to cross the Brechtian Fourth Wall and make us question if this is actually true (say a la the attempts made by the original Blair Witch Project that tried to play off of the idea that this might actually be all true (did anyone believe that? (I don’t know (yes I’m going nuts with the parentheses here for a reason), but I do know that after seeing the movie in the theaters I personally was a little freaked out, and I heard from a friend that he was more than a little freaked out driving through the half-mile in the woods from the road to his house after going to see it, and he is someone who regularly watched horror movies (what does this say? I don’t know but there was something weirdly powerful about the low-budget movie when it first came out)))). The effect of this style creates an interesting feel to the story, but one which never feels like it’s being overly forced and just meta for the sake of being self-referential and overly clever for the sake of being cute.

This last little bit really is filled with some spoilers, so I’d skip over this, and just maybe take my word that this book is a lot of fun and you should give it a try. But if you've read the book than maybe you’ll be interested in continuing.

Profile Image for Jack Tripper.
400 reviews227 followers
September 11, 2016
I've never been big on possession/exorcism stories. The whole notion strikes me as...silly, somehow. As an avid horror fiction fan, I can buy into all manner of nasty creatures and supernatural phenomena while reading, but the concept of Satan or some other demon possessing a young girl, with the battle for her soul being waged by some priest and his prayers just doesn't do it for me. So it took me a while to get to this one, despite the rave reviews. Some horror buffs here on Goodreads are of the opinion that A Head Full of Ghosts is overrated. I am not one of those people.

Much like Tremblay's Disappearance at Devil's Rock, the thing that elevates this novel above most horror for me is the excellent characterization, especially of the quirky and lovable 8 year-old Merry. Her narration as she tries to remember her family's ordeal during her older sister Marjorie's illness/possession, was so engaging that I read the entire novel in just a few sittings. She felt real to me, and I cared about what happened to her. The concept of a reality show crew being with the family at all times created a layer of unreality to it all, and made everything more ambiguous. Was Marjorie playing it all up for the cameras in order to "help" the show, and thus her family? Perhaps she's dealing with schizophrenia. Or was she actually possessed? Tremblay does an outstanding job of always leaving the reader on unsteady ground.

It's also creepy as hell at times, with a number of moments that sent serious chills down my spine. But Merry was what kept me reading. She was who I cared about. I cared about Marjorie as well, but more so for Merry's sake, as she considers Marjorie her hero and I didn't want to see her permanently scarred by the horrifying experience. Some people I see didn't care for the "blogger" sections, where a reviewer blogs about the reality show (The Possession) made about the incident, feeling it broke up the flow of the story. For me, reading the book in 90-100-page chunks, I needed a breather from the main story at times, and these sections worked well in allowing me to calm the hell down.

Overall, this is up there with the very best horror novels I've read. And as a bonus, horror geeks will have fun spotting all the references to various authors and books sprinkled throughout. Sometimes this sort of thing can suck me out of a story, but I was much too enveloped to be affected.

5 Stars
Profile Image for Jilly.
1,838 reviews6,164 followers
June 13, 2016
Actually I'm not sure if I loved this book or hated it. It was one of those books that you read and you're kind of miserable the whole time, but it also kind of blows your mind and gets you thinking. Usually, I'm against thinking too hard. I'm lazy. But, in this case, I thought some really good points on feminism, the patriarchy, religious zealotry, and the media made it worth it to hurt my brain a little bit.

okay, I admit this is every day...

So, the premise of this book is about a young woman who is recounting her childhood with a mentally ill sister. The sister seems to be schizophrenic, but we can never really be sure. Her father is convinced that she is possessed by a demon and agrees to allow a reality television show film their family and an exorcism that is performed on the girl. It is, to put it in a succinct way, a clusterfuck.

How shocking, huh? An exorcism that is a reality show spectacle turns out poorly for all involved? Who would have guessed! Those concerned and benevolent television producers were only interested in helping this poor 14-yr old girl get well. How could they have known that turning her sickness into a circus might be harmful?

And much like reality television, it will all turn to rotting unrecognizable goo..

In between the girl's recounting of her story, we also see blog posts about the reality show itself where the author is picking the show apart, giving us the idea that maybe the whole thing was staged. And, it does give the reader smidgens of doubt. You aren't sure what you believe, and you aren't sure your narrator is even very reliable when she is telling what actually happened.


Then, we find out who is writing the blog. Hummm.... is she giving us hints?

Then, we get a bomb dropped.

And, then we are decimated...

What the hell, book?

Things just don't wrap up neatly in this story. We have to make our own judgments about Marjorie and her "possession"/mental illness, but I like what our blogger had to say about it:

If she was possessed by anything other than faulty brain chemistry and/or DNA, I like to imagine her as being possessed by the vast, awesome and awful monster that is popular culture.

Profile Image for Gabriel.
491 reviews644 followers
October 19, 2022
Este es probablemente uno de los libros que más me han gustado y con los que no voy a ser objetivo o imparcial.

Este historia nos habla del lento descenso a la tragedia de una familia gracias a "la posesión demoníaca" de una de sus hijas: Marjorie. La historia nos muestra sobre todo la relación entre las hermanas y es por medio de Merry (la hermana menor) que empezamos a entender poco a poco todo lo que ocurrió en su infancia quince años atrás y qué fue lo que pasó con todos los integrantes de la familia luego de tomar la terrible decisión de utilizar la situación de "la chica poseída" para hacer un programa de terror que verán muchas personas activamente durante su emisión.

Además de tomar como anexo a la historia el blog de Karen, una chica amante a todo lo relacionado al horror que le da su buena dosis de crítica social a todo lo planteado. Aunque siento que esta parte a veces sobra un poco y hace que la historia pierda ritmo narrativo se disfruta muchísimo por dos puntos: el primero con las grandes dosis de referencia a exponentes del género del terror y todo el tema de la cultura popular.

Una cabeza llena de fantasmas no es un libro de terror propiamente dicho, para mí es un libro que habla sobre el terror y que tiene todos los componentes dignos del género para explotarlos y que si bien lo hace, no es para impresionante a ti como lector sino para llevarte por una larga espiral de reflexiones sobre el miedo, la ignorancia, el fanatismo religioso y la fe exacerbada así como la nula empatía y lo muchísimo que puede hacer daño televisar casos de la vida real para el puro entretenimiento y disfrute de los televidentes. Advierto que esta historia es triste y muy incómoda, desde el comienzo se intuye qué es lo verdaderamente está pasando con la chica afectada y eso lo hace aún más doloroso porque esperas que el desenlace de todo el conflicto sea impactante y devastador. Es una historia trágica y que a mí me entristeció profundamente.

No quiero hablar más sobre el libro porque siento que precisamente es de esos en los que es mejor descubrir porqué se merece una oportunidad. Para mí no hay nada mejor que aquellos libros con los que tienes una idea preconcebida y luego te estrellas con algo totalmente diferente a lo que te esperabas pero no por ello malo o de peor calidad. Si vienes a esta historia con ganas de entretenerte o asustarte permíteme decirte que es más que eso y puede que salgas con el corazón un poco apretujado por lo trágico y devastador de su final.

La negligencia parental, la salud mental, los tormentos personales sobre el pasado y los traumas emocionales son un factor importante de una historia que habla de manipulaciones, enfermedades y verdades que se niegan a ver durante mucho tiempo por el dolor que lastra enfrentarlas. A mí me dejó sinceramente destrozado, incómodo y muy sorprendido con el "giro" del final que parece una serie de plot twist cuando en realidad no es así y eso choca aún más.
Profile Image for Coos Burton.
767 reviews1,301 followers
May 28, 2021
Antes pensaba que Hex había sido mi mejor lectura de terror del año. Lo retiro. "Una cabeza llena de fantasmas" vino a cambiarlo todo. Me esperaba algo de toooodo lo que ocurre durante esta grandiosa novela, pero definitivamente me sorprendió muchísimo. Sin entrar en detalle, solo voy a decir dos cosas: el final me dejó totalmente devastada, y por otro lado, pronto le haré una reseña completa en mi canal.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 6 books3,976 followers
February 10, 2017
What an awesome surprise! Mr. Paul Tremblay knows his horror motifs, and he (and I) love how they're layered and layered some more, starting from truly delightful character sets with the slowly creeping horror, the slide into a normal family's confusion and pain, and then...


What? A straight possession tale and not one about a family taking care of a mentally ill daughter? One who suffers from paranoia and schizophrenia?

Oh yes, let's take this tale into a heavy-hitting commentary on religion that's fully aware of the past treatments and current standings and let's make sure that the audience is treated like the knowledgable horror fans that we are. Because we are.

And to drive the point home really well, we've got Merry playing karen in a cameo! ;)

Only, the character is discussing all these narrative points and previous entries in the horror genre and establishing this book's place in the greater conversation. How delightful! Who better to be an expert in a horror genre, blogging under an assumed name and not as herself, than the little 8 year old girl who suffered through the breakdown of her sister into maddness/poessession, and the religious/media circus that followed the reality tv spectacle. Real life following art following real life following art? Yes, please!

But what really sets this book up well is not just the obvious devolution and the questions and the lies and the religious nuttery; it's the twist that explained so naturally, so self-consciously, so delightfully honest and with great energy, that I was pretty well floored by the end of the read.

And this is how a good book becomes a great book. :) Well, a great horror, anyway. :) Smart and delicious and self-conscious and surprising. :) What more could we ask for? Tragedy? Oh yes, there's that, too. :)
Profile Image for Joe Valdez.
485 reviews811 followers
December 23, 2022
My introduction to the fiction of Paul Tremblay is A Head Full of Ghosts. Published in 2015, I took a chance downloading the Kindle version to study the ways an author can use a ghost story to explore family dynamics. This is very much a family dynamic used to explore a ghost story. If plot driven novels loaded with self-awareness and pop culture references are your hobby horse, you might enjoy this. I found the novel to be obnoxious in its use of blogging and reality themed TV to move the story forward. I read books to get away from the worst of TV, not pig out on it. And the writing is bad. Quite bad. I abandoned it at the 32% mark.

The story centers on Meredith Barrett, who at the age of twenty-three is living in Boston and agrees to consult with an author named Rachel Neville who's writing a book on a notorious event the Barretts experienced fifteen years ago, when "Merry" was eight. The sensation in Beverly, MA (right across the river from Salem) surrounded Merry's then fourteen-year-old sister Marjorie, who begins to exhibit antisocial behavior and then very strange things: climbing walls like a spider, speaking in strange accents, puking green vomit at the dinner table. Was this a psychiatric episode or a supernatural one?

Merry's father John has been laid off from the toy manufacturer he's worked for his whole life and her mother Sarah, a bank teller, has assumed the role of breadwinner. This tension is needlessly torqued up when Dad turns to the comforts of the Catholic Church to mend their family troubles, antagonizing his secular wife. Struggling to put bread on the table (especially when Marjorie barfs on it), the couple agree to allow a budding television producer and his cameras into their home. Titled The Possession, the six-episode run inspires debate among horror fans for years. Merry, blogging as "Karen Brissette" on a popular blog she names The Last Final Girl, is one of those fans.

What we have with A Head Full of Ghosts isn't a novel about a ghostly or demonic presence settling over an American family, it's about how television and the Internet interpret the disturbance. Tremblay needed the courage to take out the middle man and tell a story with the merits to stand on its own. Much of his writing is too cute for its own good, particularly the lengths he goes to illustrate--breaking news--how ridiculous reality themed TV or pop culture addiction are. A skilled author would've been able to hide social commentary or snark in the weeds. Tremblay puts it out on the street corner wearing a clown outfit. And his writing is bad.

Rachel sits at the far end of a long couch in the almost-empty living room. A drop cloth protects the couch's upholstery from anyone careless enough to sit on it. Or perhaps Rachel is the one being protected, with the cloth saving her from contact with a moldy couch. Her hat settles on her lap, a fragile bird that has been bullied from its nest.

I decide to finally respond to her nonquestion, even if it has expired.

"Yes, this is difficult for me. And please, don't call me Meredith. I prefer Merry."

"I am sorry, Merry. Maybe our coming here is a bad idea." Rachel stands up, her hat flutters to the floor, and she hides her hands in her jacket pockets. I wonder if she has her own paint chips, or strips of wallpaper, or some other pieces of this place's past hidden in her pockets as well. "We could conduct our interview elsewhere, where you would be more comfortable."

"No. Really. It's okay. I willingly agree to do this. It's just that I'm--"

"Nervous. I totally understand."

"No." I say
no in my Mom's lilty singsong. "That's just it. I'm the opposite of nervous. I'm almost overwhelmed by how comfortable I feel. As weird as it sounds, it's surprisingly nice to be back home. I don't know if that makes sense, and I normally don't carry on like this, so maybe I am nervous. But anyway, please, sit, and I'll join you."

This is from the opening chapter. If I can't believe a conversation between two adults in a novel, there's no way I can be expected to believe in paranormal activity, and if I don't believe in it, I don't care. Tremblay's "on duty" light glimmers to life when Marjorie begins to editorialize Richard Scarry's Cars, Trucks and Things That Go to tell Merry dark and disturbing stories of her own making. I read Scarry's books as a kid and this bit of pop culture sampling caught my eye, but this novel is writing in search of a book.
Profile Image for Maggie Stiefvater.
Author 88 books168k followers
November 7, 2020
An atmospheric and deeply meta possession-story that revels in horror and pop culture references. Readers who enjoy mixed media stories (stories that include letters, news articles, etc. to tell the story) will dig this one.
Profile Image for Trudi.
615 reviews1,418 followers
May 16, 2016
!!! 2015 Winner of Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel!!!

I read this last summer so the details are a bit sketchy now to pull off an in-depth review, but I hate leaving review spaces blank, and this is me trying to push some of my favorites back in front of your face again in case you missed them. A Head Full of Ghosts just snagged the 2015 Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel which should help give it a much-deserved boost in exposure.

I loved this one, not only because parts of it genuinely creeped me the hell out and raised the little hairs on the back of my neck, but the uncertainty of whether I was dealing with an unreliable narrator or not kept me on edge, and off kilter through the entirety of the novel. In its most simplistic terms, this is an "exorcism" book -- teenager Marjorie is Regan MacNeil (minus the pea soup vomiting and ...ahem...crucifix play). She is out of control -- her behavior becoming increasingly odd, violent and disturbing to her family -- especially her younger sister Merry (our intrepid narrator looking back on events from an adult p.o.v.)

Can I just say right here right now, creepy kids creep me the hell out? Of course they do.

As this desperate family plunges into the darkness of either a spiritually possessed child, or one who is mentally ill, reality show producers come a-calling, hoping to sensationalize and to capitalize for a quick buck on the family's suffering. Which brings us to the "meta" aspects of this novel which give it an extra layer of fun. Not only do we get the transcripts of the reality documentary, we also get the blog entries of an intrepid blogger who has a keen interest (obsession) in delving into the case.

(And in case you haven't heard, our intrepid blogger is based upon Goodreads' very own karen!).

There's nothing too graphic here for anyone worried about the "exorcism" angle -- it's very much in the vein of psychological horror because as readers we can never be sure if what's really happening is supernatural in origin, or a product of mental disturbance combined with the shameless exploitation of modern reality tv (and what a desperate family may be driven to do under the right financial pressures).

I loved the uncertainty. I loved all the "meta" stuff and breaking through the fourth wall. But most of all, I loved that Paul Tremblay can write a scene that has me trembling, and looking over my shoulder, and then sleeping with the lights on!

Profile Image for Beverly.
807 reviews292 followers
October 17, 2018
I don't know. I liked this and it kept me propulsively reading until I was finished in a few days, but the ending was too closely related to We Have Always Lived in the Castle for me. That being said I loved the sisters and their relationship; the character of the little sister, Merry, was especially well done. She acted and sounded like a little kid. I loved the description of her excess energy and the clever way her parents dealt with it. The nuances of her personality were brilliant. The ending disappointed me, but it was still a pretty darn scary read.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Gareth Is Haunted.
321 reviews36 followers
May 3, 2023
A Head Full of Ghosts is a brilliant, terrifying and emotional horror novel that explores the depths of the human mind.

I often have at least some idea of what I am going to write when I start writing a review but this book has me so twisted that I am just going to put down what initially comes to mind, and then I can come back and edit when I feel the need.

“Are you good at keeping secrets, Merry?” “I’m better than some.” I pause, then add, “More often than not, they keep me,”

A Head Full of Ghosts tells the story of a family torn apart by a mysterious and horrifying event involving their teenage daughter, who may or may not be possessed by a demon.

'Her hyperactive pitch was layered and schizophrenic, imploding down into a singularity, then going big bang, expanding and exploding all over everything.'

This is one of a rare number of books that after the reading has left me pondering what really happened, is the narrator hugely unreliable or could these events be as they have been portrayed?
The novel is cleverly narrated from different perspectives, including the younger sister, a horror blogger, and a reality TV show. It explores themes of mental illness, media, memory and challenges the reader to question what is real and what is fiction.
The media aspect of this story left me deeply troubled by the damage which it causes to the family and others around them and also made me think about this from the aspect of modern social media and the damage it could and does cause to users.
The characters are exceptionally well-developed and realistic, and I thought the writing style was incredibly engaging and witty. For me, Merry's account of the events was priceless and perfectly fits a character of her age. Merry's perspective was both innocent and unreliable but remains wholly relatable to me. I was once that imaginative, observant and often strong-headed child.

“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.”

This book will no doubt haunt me and leave me questioning its events for some time. It had me in fits of laughter, had me terrified at points, and also left me an emotional wreck on occasion.
A must-read for fans of horror and suspense, and it will leave you with a head full of questions and chills.
Highly recommended!!!
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