Sunday, March 6, 2016

Women in Horror: A Head Full of Ghosts

The Barrett's are a normal family who live in  New England. All of them are devastated when Marjorie, the 14 year old daughter, exhibits signs of acute schizophrenia. At first, they opt to use conventional psychiatry and psychology for treatment, but when her condition worsens, her father John feels that his new found devotion in religion is the key to her health. He believes his daughter is possessed by demons and modern medicine can't help. Merry, the youngest daughter at 8, is just confused. She has no idea what's wrong with her sister and becomes annoyed that no one pays attention to her anymore. The family's lives get turned upside down when they become involved in filming a reality TV show called The Possession about exorcising the demon from their daughter. Is Marjorie really possessed? Is she faking or is she simply mentally ill?

A Head Full of Ghosts is a complex book that tells its story in a variety of ways. The story is being told to a best selling author who is writing adult Merry's account of the events. Some scenes are in present day with Merry chatting with the author, but her account is told through the eyes of her eight year old self. Even assuming Merry remembers everything accurately (which she admits she probably isn't) and isn't lying, she doesn't really know everything that happened. She was eight and protected from a lot of what went on behind the scenes and the decision-making processes. Of course she cared for her sister, but after a while simply became annoyed that no one really paid attention to her any longer. No one plays games with her anymore and her boundless energy is now seen as an annoyance since her sister has been sick. When horrible things start happening, Merry is of course terrified but has no idea if her sister is faking, possessed, or mentally ill. All she knows is that Marjorie isn't a fun playmate anymore and has no idea if the things she perceives are real or just imagination heightened by fear.

As a result of her sister's situation, Merry's parents are also very different people. Her father John is suddenly devoutly religious and prays for long periods of time. Merry is mostly confused by it because it was never part of her life. Now she feels deficient in her father's eyes and scared of his fervor. The religious leaders that come to supervise and exorcise take complete control. If he's capable of finding such an extreme "solution" to his daughter's problem, what else is he capable of? Her mother Sarah doesn't agree with the religious solution, but she's desperate to find a cure. She isn't happy about the TV show or the exorcism, so she turns to drinking heavily and becoming moody. The TV show portrays her as confused and barely there, but she always tried to keep Merry and Marjorie (to a lesser extent) from being exploited or scared. I found Merry's narrative rings true. She's just a normal kid, not some super smart, precocious adult version of a kid and it's refreshing.

This brings us to Marjorie. Most possession stories are about fear of girls turning into women, including becoming sexual, defying authority, and simply existing. This one seems to be no different. Marjorie is 14 years old, just around puberty. She used to be cheerful and eager to write stories with her little sister, but now, she wants some privacy and a life away from her family. Like normal teenage girl, she is contrary and sullen. Unlike a normal teenage girl, she is prone to fits of violence and other strange behavior. The most memorable one is after she's been sick, she graphically and messily masturbates while on her period and then urinates and defecates on the carpet. This is the most extreme and disgusting version of this type of scene in fiction. It really boils down to fear of women's sexuality by showing normal sexual expression in a grotesque way. In The Exorcist, it was Reagan stabbing her genitals and shoving her mother's face in the wound while spewing obscenities. A Head Full of Ghosts does the same thing, taking it to further extreme. She also does the requisite rebellious things turned up: physically fighting her father, obscenities, cursing the church, etc, which are an exaggerated version of normal teenage rebellion. It seems like Marjorie is faking for much of the novel, she admits it herself. However, she may be lying or delusional or possessed. I like that Merry and the readers by extension never definitely know which one.

In addition to this account, a blog by an annoying horror fan (who also turns out to be Merry writing under a pseudonym) analyzing and commenting on The Possession and descriptions of scenes from the actual TV show (edited from actual events or re-enactments aired on the Discovery Channel) are included in the story. I love how meta the story is in analyzing and picking apart itself so I don't have to do it (but I did a bit anyway). The entire narrative is through Merry's eyes. The ending throws the veracity of literally everything into question and I like it. Some may see the entire novel as pointless at that point, but I enjoyed the journey. I don't find the book scary, but it is unsettling. The suspense is built at times, but sometimes huge revelations are stated plainly. A couple of the scenes are practically burned into my brain and I enjoyed Tremblay's unique writing as he layered the story deceptively through one point of view. He took a genre I don't enjoy and made it interesting to me. It still has misogynistic elements, but it's hard to get away from when it's an inherent part of the genre. I can't wait for his next book, Disappearance at Devil's Rock.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

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