Is fourteen year-old Marjorie crazy or is she possessed? It’s a familiar setup, and Tremblay’s novel drags us through the first half of the novel with a lot of hand-wringing, family dinners, and vomiting before the inevitable exorcism. (Given how fond demons seem to be of possessing fourteen year-old girls, I’d give possession good odds). Although A Head Full of Ghosts gains momentum in the second half and makes for a page-turning read, there’s not a lot I can tell you about the book’s characters. The novel’s conclusion left me surprised—but not delighted.
A lot of people dig this book. So much so that I finished it assuming I must be missing something, and maybe I am. Maybe it’s everyone else. Life imitating pulp horror, surely. I suspect that where the thematics enrapture some readers, passive protagonists bore and frustrate me.
Tremblay presents a family in crisis through the lens of Merry, an unreliable narrator who interacts with unreliable people. Thus there is no compass with which to navigate the story. Further, many of the major decisions the characters make happen off-screen, thus the novel misses opportunities for character-defining moments. For example, we miss the interactions that pave the way for the family to become the focus of a Ghost Hunters type reality show, the moment when the father starts to believe that his daughter is possessed, the family’s interactions before everything has soured for them. Instead of providing the reader with the most important decisions these characters make, Tremblay shows us their autopsies at the dinner table and in summation through Merry’s narrative exposition. With no substantive frame of reference to anchor the story, the dramtic question muddies because every aspect of the story comes into question. Is Marjorie sick, insane, or is Merry’s story bullshit?
Ambiguity works. But the writer must craft it with purpose and specificity. For example, in The Usual Suspects, we discover at the end that the story we’ve just been told is total bullshit. However, that discovery comes by virtue of the fact that we’ve learned the identity of the criminal mastermind. And thus the audience experiences one of the most satisfying endings in film history. In Othello, Iago gives conflicting motives for destroying the eponymous tragic hero, and Shakespeare leaves the audience to speculate regarding Iago’s true reason for hating the Moor. However, Shakespeare draws Iago with such stunning clarity, anyone who’s been paying attention will surely form their own ideas and be able to defend them with conviction. Such cannot be said of the conclusion of A Head Full of Ghosts. Merry and Marjorie have a book they write weird stories in, but we never get any insight regarding what it means to them. Merry plays a mean game of soccer, but it seems to offer her no real source of passion or inspiration and never pays off. It’s just something she does. Marjorie and Merry have no peer relationships, and they may be gay, bi, straight, pansexual–or into furries. We have no way of knowing, because it never comes up. No one in this story appears to have any aspirations beyond dealing with Marjorie and her maybe-possession. So what does putting all their lives on hold to perform an exorcism cost them? How does it forward or hinder their agendas? Who knows? Do we even care, or are we just waiting for the punchline?
Because the characters never experience any sort of catharsis, neither does the reader. By the end of the novel, I don’t know what has happened inside the Barrett house. We don’t know if Marjorie was possessed or psychotic. Or if Merry is psychotic or posssessed. Or maybe it was the dad. And even if we decide to make an educated guess, there’s no indication of motive or how the murders might have fulfilled a desire or delusional fantasy. A shrug and a head scratch do not for a satifying ending make.