While on a road trip recently, I picked up Paul Tremblay’s latest novel, A Head Full of Ghosts, and proceeded to spend the next ten hours completely creeped out by it. We chatted with Paul Tremblay to find out just why he thinks this book is his graduate thesis on horror fiction.
A Head Full of Ghosts follows a 14 year old girl and her family as she begins exhibiting signs of acute schizophrenia - or is she possessed by a demon? Her father brings in a priest to try and save her, while a reality television show pops up to document the entire process. It’s a horrifying, dark novel that had me hooked from beginning to end.
A Head Full of Ghosts seems to have scared just about everyone who’s read it - people like Stephen King and Elizabeth Hand were raving about it. Where did this story come from?
In early February of 2013, I was slowly working on another novel; doing more pseudo-research than actual writing (or actual research). In my readings I stumbled upon a collection of critical essays written about the film The Exorcist. While reading those essays I had one of those rare a-ha moments writers dream of getting1. It occurred to me that recently there have been plenty literary updates/reimagings of the zombie, vampire, and werewolf, but there hadn’t been an exorcism/possession novel for quite some time, despite (or maybe because of) Hollywood continuing to pump out the very mediocre (to be kind) PG-13 possession flicks. I started thinking about how I would write a possession story, and instantly I knew that I’d want to take a postmodern and secular or skeptical approach to the material. I quickly figured out that the story would be told from the point of view of a younger sibling, and then I had the two sisters, Marjorie and Merry, and I was off and
running writing from there. All that plus Bad Religion had just released their record True North and all during that fateful February I had their song, “My Head Is Full of Ghosts,” playing in my own head2.
The story follows a young woman who seems to be either ill or possessed. America has a long history of persecuting young women in a similar way: what did you use to draw on for depicting this?
From the get go, I planned on keeping the question of whether or not something supernatural was happening to be the ultimate question that ran throughout the entirety of the novel. I also wanted to call attention to how organized religion has a long and shall we say complicated history when it comes to misogyny, in addition to conflating the symptoms of various mental illnesses as (bogus) signs of possession. American popular culture, including many classic and not-so-classic horror narratives, hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory with how women are treated/portrayed either. Part of the role of the blogger in the A Head Full of Ghosts is to spotlight this Venn Diagram of shared checkered history3 and how it relates to the chaos of events swirling around Marjorie Barrett.
From the other side of it, I certainly never intended to vilify or make monstrous people who suffer from mental illness. It’s my hope that readers see Marjorie as a recognizable teen, and an empathic, tragic figure. By the end how can you not feel just awful for Marjorie?
Who in A Head Full of Ghosts do you think represents the most evil?
I don’t think it’s a single “who.” The who is a collective; all of the adults—her parents, the priests, the reality show, the outside forces of media and protestors—most of whom are genuinely doing the best they can to help Marjorie, but along the way they make poor decisions and/or perfectly reasonable decisions that continue to make everything get worse. The monster (one I love, despite its faults, but it’s still a monster) of popular culture is to blame too. If a novel were to have a thesis statement, I think mine has two: Merry asks her interviewer, “What does it say about you or anyone else that my sister’s nationally televised psychotic break and decent into schizophrenia wasn’t horrific enough?” And later, Marjorie says to Father Wanderly,”I’m not a creature. I’m Marjorie, a fourteen-year-old girl…”
The book has a particular structure: it’s remembered from most of the characters, either through interviews, a reality television show and a blogger’s retrospective. Why go this direction?
Much of the horror of the novel is rooted in its ambiguity, never really knowing what is real and what isn’t, or the realization that memory, identity, and reality are more slippery concepts than we care to admit they are. I wanted to muddy the waters as much as I could, and to do so I put in as many filters and perspectives on Merry’s reality as I could4. Merry is the younger sister; she was eight when Marjorie was 14 when the reality show and attempted exorcism happened. Fast-forward fifteen years into our future and Merry is twenty-three years old and attempting to recount and rebuild what happened to her and her family. But memory isn’t perfect, particularly when there are other intrusions from various forms of media. If you had a six episode reality show of a part of your childhood that you can watch and re-watch, that would likely mess with your head, yeah? So the blogger presents herself as an objective voice commenting on the irreality of a realty show and pop culture in general, hopefully adding another what-is-really-going-on layer to the narrative.
Why do you think ambiguity is such a powerful tactic in horror fiction?
Ambiguity is our permanent state, isn’t it? We don’t like it being so. Most of us crave order and routine, and yet yawning before us is our future, as frightening as it is thrilling. And as I mentioned earlier, the idea that our reality or present is murky and malleable is unsettling, and it’s unsettling because it’s the truth. Horror lives in those liminal or in between spaces, the cracks of things. The closer a horror story gets to the truth of things, the more affective it is going to be.
Why use a reality television show in the novel, as opposed to something like a documentary or news coverage?
At this point I think most people can agree that “reality television” isn’t all that real5. A documentary wouldn’t have been the best fit because documentarians6 won’t interfere with or script the goings on for ratings and advertisers. With a reality TV crew hanging around, there’s built-in nagging doubt for the reader as to whether or not the maybe-supernatural happenings were faked by the crew or real or somewhere in the middle.
I loved how you examined the horror genre as a whole within this book through some of the characters - what was something you learned about the larger horror canon while you were writing this?
Jeeze, I don’t know if I can pinpoint what I learned during the writing of this novel. I’ve been a fan of horror and studying it for as long as I can remember. The use of all the horror references and critiques in A Head Full of Ghosts has an important role in the book, but I have to admit, it was fun getting to geek out like that and present my graduate7 thesis on horror. So in one sense the book is a weird combination of love letter to horror and a fist-shaking at the famously reactionary politics of much of it8.
I will say that getting to revisit so many favorites while working on the book reaffirmed my deep affection for the genre. There is this sense of shared history, of newer stories building from and reacting to the stories and writer that came before. And when horror/dark fiction/weird fiction9 is done right, aye, that’s the stuff.
One of the things that struck me the hardest with this book (and your next, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock) was that as a parent, each novel is literally my worst nightmare: my child getting horribly ill, possessed or vanishing. Was this difficult to write for you (as a parent yourself)?
I’m afraid of everything10. I’ve always been a dwell-and-stew-on-the-worst-case-scenarios kind of person, so my worst parental fears tend to surface when I’m writing. To deal with it, I often flip it around and look at those scenarios from the point of view of the children involved. That kind of scares me more; an honest unvarnished view from a child of a parent honestly trying her/his best and failing.
So much of my work is about children and/or parenting, it’s something I’m drawn to without being able to completely articulate why. I have two kids and I’m a high school teacher, so I’m around children all the time. I still vividly remember the emotions and what I was thinking at particularly confusing and stressful times from my childhood, and I still view myself as an overgrown kid11. Those shifting perspectives, the uncertainty of it all, it interests me as a writer and reader, and it’s perfect fodder for horror fiction.
Your next novel, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock follows a family after a boy vanishes in the middle of the woods. What can we expect from you for that novel?
Terror! Horror! And Hardy Boys fan fiction! I’m kidding. Though maybe that would be cool….
There’s more ambiguity at play here with the question of what did or didn’t happen to Tommy Sanderson, the boy who inexplicably goes missing from a local state park. I hope that the book is emotionally realistic in how it portrays Tommy’s mother and sister, how their grief and confusion and panic affects their relationship and decision making. It’s also a book about Tommy and his two friends (they’re thirteen going on fourteen-years-old), and the entwinement of nascent masculinity and violence. And yeah, there’s weird stuff that happens12 and it’ll be creepy and super disturbing too. Despite everything I said above, I wouldn’t lie to you.
What bands are you listening to right now that you’re loving?
How much space do we have here? I’ll try to be brief.
Future of the Left is one of my favorite bands. Hard/heavy, oddly and infectiously melodic at times, angry, funny, quirky, and brilliant lyrically; I’m a huge fan. I own all their records and way too many tee shirts. I approached the band’s lead singer/guitarist Andrew Falkous for permission to quote a lyric from “An Idiot’s Idea of Ireland” in the epigraph of A Head Full of Ghosts, which he and the band graciously gave me. Now three years later, my name is in their acknowledgements for their brilliant new record, The Peace and Truth of Future of the Left, which is just too cool for words13.
Protomarytr kindly gave me permission to quote their song “The Devil in His Youth” for the epigraph of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock.
Other bands I’ve been listening to a lot lately: The Saint Pierre Snake Invasion, Bob Mould, Shellac, PJ Harvey, Saul Williams, Speedy Ortiz. Oh, when writing I listen to the Ravenous, It Follows, and now The Witch soundtracks, and Lustmord.
- Well, I dream of getting those a-ha moments. I also dream of being in the coolest punk band ever, eating the perfect pizza, and a world without pickles.
- I get ideas/inspiration from music all the time. Yes, I’m a wannabe musician. See footnote 1.
- Is that a mixed metaphor? Let’s go with it either way.
- I also knew that I’d have to address the Blatty-Friedkin-sized elephant in the room. Instead of ducking The Exorcist, I decided to react to it directly. I thought it would be a cool way to build the ambiguity by letting the reader know that yeah, you’ve seen some of these classic horror set ups before, and then twist and distort them a little bit, and hopefully it all makes the question of what’s-real-what’s-not more difficult to answer.
- People should also agree that pickles are terrible things. I have an agenda.
- The Documentarians would be the name of my awesome punk band.
- Yes, I’m bestowing upon myself a graduate level degree. That’s kind of obnoxious, but I’m not taking it back
- Oh no, I’m making the novel sound dry and boring. It’s fun, scary, and disturbing too. I promise! But hey if you like that kind of stuff the paperback (plug plug plug) includes some extras like an essay I wrote called “The Politics of Horror.” That essay has footnotes too.
- Whatever you want to call it.
- Including pickles, obviously.
- Someone somewhere recently said that the discovery of adulthood is that there are no adults. That someone is spot on
- It’s only April. The book comes out in June. No spoilers for you!
- Falkous is writing excellent short fiction as well.
A Head Full of Ghosts will be released in Paperback on May 10th.