Fictions & Fandoms Review of A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS
Note: I listened to this as an audiobook, which always flavors the experience. More on that later.
A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS follows the “Interview with a Vampire” format of a present day survivor, Merry, recounting her harrowing (and famous) childhood to a bestselling author. When she was just eight years old, Merry’s family entered a tailspin when her older sister, Marjorie, suffered a complete mental health collapse.
When her desparate parents consult a priest for help, the Catholic minister pushes them first towards exorcism. This leads, somewhat inexplicably, to the family becoming the subject of a paranormal docu-drama called “The Possession”.
Their participation in the reality TV show both amplifies the family’s interpersonal struggles, and leads to a publicized tragedy that continues to haunt Merry fifteen years later. Now the subject of urban legend and speculation, Merry’s interview sessions unspool a cavalcade of long-buried secrets and revelations.
Meta-Horror is So Hot Right Now
It seems of late that every third “horror” novel is really a meta-textual examination of the horror genre—of films and stories, how we relate to them, and how we mimic them.
I wonder if A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS would have felt more incisive and relevant had I read it in 2015, rather than after numerous other meta-minded books (with dissimilar premises but kindred thematic spirits). Instead, I hit the first “blog post” section and thought with a sigh, “oh, it’s another one of these…”
I think this book would have been far more effective at novella length, with all the Fangoria blog post sections excised. For one, those sections feel painfully overwritten. Not that bloggers of that era weren’t try-harding their way towards a distinct “voice”! Many were (and still are).
But it feels trite, already dated, and—in the audio version at least—grating. They also clash so hard with the earnestness of Merry as a narrator, that I hope they’re intended to make you distrust her motives and truthfulness as she tells her story to Rachel, the author/interviewer.
I Failed to Find the Frights
Others seem to find this story deeply scary. To me, it’s just troubling. The older sister, Marjorie, is clearly ill, perhaps malevolently so. The parents are deeply broken people trying to compensate for a number of problems.
Merry, the adult, is stable but understandably damaged, untangling memories of everything that happened. The titular “Head Full of Ghosts” is hers, and hers alone. This is psychological horror, even if the horror part feels forced.
Having the narrator reflecting on their experiences as an 8 year old conveniently allows the story to hand-wave past things that don’t make sense, or to directly lampshade them. (See: how her parents got a TV show out of nowhere.) It functions, but I felt reminded of these things enough times that my suspension of disbelief stretched fiber thin.
The Horror of Only Making Bad Decisions
What does feel true in this story is how anything can spiral entirely out of control. How good intentions, delirious thinking, and opportunism can Voltron together into a rampaging beast, untamed and unhinged. How the sanest people can watch everything around them fall completely apart without intervention, willing accomplices to disaster until the last, unavoidable minute.
That horror rings true here, even as I wanted to scream at the novel’s cast of cardboard characters. Howling, the way a theater audience might scream “no, you fools, don’t hide behind the chainsaws!”
Everything is Too Obvious—Except the Marketing
I worry that part of my non-enjoyment here was the feeling of being misled. I wanted a great horror story, and got something else instead. Maybe it was that the “shocking ending” felt entirely inevitable and obvious, even if its circumstances were buried until the last chapters of the book.
Or maybe it was just that, despite solid prose and atmosphere, the scaffolding holding this fictional world up just seemed too visible. Like watching a movie filmed before high definition, the rough edges of sets and makeup made painfully plain in 4K.
The meta bits, the ripped-from-the-headlines background stuff, the tonal misdirections—it ruined my sense of anything being “real”.
A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS came highly, and frequently, recommended to me. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I enjoyed it. I didn’t hate it, either, but I fail to see what all the fuss is about.
When the story wrapped, I was just relieved it was over. I really didn’t want to spend any more time with these characters.
A Note about the Audiobook
The audiobook narrator is quality. Unfortunately, all her male characters sound cartoonishly boorish and same-y. The adult Merry and Rachel voices are indistinguishable.
The “blog” sections are overacted to the point of annoyance. That matches the text perfectly, but is nonetheless distracting and frustrating. I’d definitely try another book with her, though.
Am I the intended audience for this book?
I tend to enjoy psychological horror, and love ghost stories. I like a good twist, too, but a bait-and-switch? Not so much.
Would I have picked this book up off a store shelf?
I bought it in Audiobook for my own enjoyment, and I love the title. I think the cover is boring, though, in a very 90’s generic alt-rock album cover design. So even odds here.
Will I keep it on my bookshelf?
I won’t be pursuing a physical copy for my shelves. File under: “Just not for me.”