A confession : I have an irrational fear of horror movies/books. While I appreciate the intricacies that are to be found in well written horror, particularly in stories that rather than dwelling on the supernatural reasons for inexplicable events, explore the horrors and monsters that lie dormant in all of us, reading horror regularly is not my forte. Although I have read quite a few of the seminal works from the genre ( Dracula, Frankenstein, the Shining ), I do realise that I need to read more regularly from the genre to better understand and appreciate the themes that good horror regularly tackles. Thus, when I came across an interesting piece on A Head Full of Ghosts on io9 ( a site that often recommends cool sci-fi works ), I decided to give it a try. Nevertheless, it took me a good two weeks to gather up the courage to read the book ( kind of embarassed by how chicken-shit scared I am sometimes ) . I started this book over the course of a lazy Sunday, was immediately hooked, and finished it 9 hours later. Apart from the “wow, that was weird/messed up/very cool” thought in my head and a piercing headache thanks to reading the book at a wrong angle from my laptop for a few hours straight, I decided to sleep over before I wrote my thoughts on this book, just to make sure that I gave more time to what I really thought about the book and the themes that it so brilliantly tackles.
The story is told from the point of view of 23 year old Merrie, as she recalls what transpired with her family 15 years ago, when she was 8. The Baretts lived in suburban Boston, and were the typical middle class post-millennium family of 4; the father, John, worked at the local toy manufacturing plant, the mother, Sarah, a heavy smoker/ ardent YouTube user who worked odd jobs here and there to support the family, and the two sisters, Merrie and Marjorie. The family’s peaceful lives are completely shattered due to Marjorie’s descent into a severe form of schizophrenia, which is made worse by the family’s tightening financial situation ever since John lost his job during the Great Recession when his factory got shut down. Inspite of the strain that it caused on their finances, they continue providing Marjorie with psychiatric help, but to no avail. Desperate to find a way out for his daughter, John gradually rediscovers religion, and to the vehement disapproval of Sarah, takes the help of a local priest to “cure” Marjorie from the possession of a demon. The family’s case is made even more peculiar when the priest recommends them getting in touch with a tv production company for shooting a reality show based on their lives, while all the time they try and exorcise the demons from Marjorie’s life. Desperate for money, they reluctantly agree. What transpires is a slow descent of the entire family into truly inexplicable behaviour under the constant roll of the digital cameras, with the show becoming an overnight sensation and Marjorie’s condition steadily deteriorating.
What makes Merrie’s narration different and interesting is that she is retelling her take on the events that transpired in her life to a famous author who wants to write an investigative book on the Baretts’ life. At the same time, Merrie maintains a famous blog online under a pseudonym, where she writes critical reviews and commentaries on horror books, movies and shows. During the course of her narration to the author, we come across the series of blog posts that she wrote on The Possession ( the hit reality show based on her family), critically deconstructing the various horror artifacts and cultural hints that the show used. This juxtaposition of various narrative takes to the same event leads to an underlying feeling of uncertaintly that runs throughout the book. The reader is always forced to second guess what actually transpired in the family’s lives, whether it was a simple case of a highly troubled girl going through a mental breakdown, or whether there was something much more sinister that was driving the monstrosity throughout the family.
A Head Full of Ghosts is brilliantly written. Once engrossed in it, readers might find it difficult to unwind themselves from the book and put it down. A lot has been said about the ending of the book and how much of a shocker it is. To be honest, I wasn’t as shocked with the ending as I had expected to be. What I found more disturbing was the more simpler, common yet even more troubling truths that the book hinted towards : just how exactly do we define a family to be normal? How easily would any of us break down in circumstances beyond our control, and to what extent would we be willing to go to achieve something that we whole heartedly believe in? How much do we really know about mental illness? Heck, how do we even know what to define as mental illness, and what to define as perfectly ordinary, if not entirely normal, behaviour and thoughts? Marjorie repeatedly stressed to Merrie that she was faking it, that she only heard voices in her head and was faking the entire possessed part to help her family with the finances coming from the reality show deal. Yet how much of her creepy behaviour to everyone in the house was down to her consciously controlling it? If indeed her abnormalities were due to an unfortunate mental condition, how exactly do we detect and cure this mental condition in the thousands of people all over the world who suffer from it? If inspite of all the scientific progress of the past centuries, we are still far from grasping and decoding people’s real intentions and thoughts, can we really dismiss mental illnesses under a black box, ignoring to look more closely into it until science equips us with stronger tools and insights to unravel the mind and the games that it plays on people? Who was really the tragic hero in the Baretts’ household? Was it Marjorie, or was it John, a possibly depressed father who slowly descented into fanaticism and a different kind of madness linked to religiosity? Or was it Sarah, the always skeptic mother who knew all along that her daughter was not “possessed” , yet played along with the reality show arc to save her family’s fortunes? And lastly, just how much of what Merrie said was actually true?
One can’t help but shaking off an eerie feeling that there was more to the story than what was shown at the surface throughout the book, and that, I believe, is one of the strongest points of A Head Full of Ghosts. The story is spooky without descending into using supernatural props to spread fear. More than anything, it hints at how in one way or the other, we are much closer than we would like to accept to descending into behaviour and events that we never expected, and that the real monsters are not the ghouls or the ghosts lurking in the dark ( I am looking at you, the weird girl from the Grudge that gave me nightmares for years). The real monsters are out there, amongst us, dormant in our loved ones, and possibly even in ourselves. Unless we understand people, their thoughts and what drives their behaviour completely, we literally are socializing with the demons, unaware and oblivious to which ones will show the true, scary face of the world to us.