“What does that say about you or anyone else that my sister’s nationally televised psychotic break and descent into schizophrenia wasn’t horrific enough?”
There are layers upon layers to unpack in this story. A family drama of mental illness inside a reality show inside a flashback inside a meta-commentary on the nature of horror and our fascination with it.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay is nominally about a mentally-ill teenager whose increasingly bizarre behavior prompts her father to contact a priest, who then contacts a production company to document the family’s crisis. That is one layer of the story, which is told in flashbacks by the now adult sister of the purportedly “possessed” teen and her permeable memories of the situation; added to that is meta-commentary in the form of a blog interspersed with the narrative that analyzes the reality TV show that proved a huge success in documenting the family’s tragic breakdown.
Whew. So my first question in reading this: If something acknowledges that it’s derivative, does that merit forgiveness of its transgressions? Ecclesiastes 1:9 posits that “there is nothing new under the sun” and while that’s certainly true, does acknowledging the story’s unabashed adherence to every demon-possession trope induce the reader to accept the rehash as a necessary evil?
So much of horror in the 21st century is derivative, self-referential, parodic, and satirical that we forget that the concept was once fresh in the days of Scream. It’s as though on one hand we are desperate to qualify our horror with a wink and nod, cramming in pop culture references in place of originality or even quality work. Everything is an homage to something else, so that the film or book can be appreciated as clever and not merely a copy.
Also, is there any better way to appease our ambivalence over enjoying horror by sheltering it with comedy? While I love Shaun of the Dead and Cabin in the Woods to the death, they’re the high points in an exhausting onslaught of Scary Movies and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and George Washington: Werewolf (is that last one a book? It feels like it should be.)
A Head Full of Ghosts actually includes an “Extended Liner Notes/DVD Extras” to explain character names and references in the book, as though the reader needed to know exactly which of the author’s friends garner shout-outs in the form of minor characters (although it did vindicate one particular theory of mine regarding the main character’s name).
The majority of the referential apologism in the book is served in the form of a blog written by a mildly obnoxious horror buff analyzing the six-episode run of The Possession, the title of the reality show that follows the family as they attempt to exorcise their daughter in the tradition of every exorcism movie ever (and the book ensures that you know that it knows all about the puke and spider-crawling and demon-speak cliches that it nevertheless employs). This is one lens through which the story is viewed.
On the next layer, we have the story as retold by the now-adult Merry, who was 8 at the time of her sister’s “possession.” Through her eyes we witness firsthand events that take place off-camera, although she admits: “it’s the story itself I don’t fully trust.”
The reliability of the narrator is further cast into doubt as she goes on to explain:
“…my memories mix up with my nightmares, with extrapolation, with skewed oral histories from my grandparents and aunts and uncles, and with all the urban legends and lies propagated within the media, pop culture, and the near continuous stream of websites/blogs/YouTube channels devoted to the show…So all of it hopelessly jumbles up what I knew and what I know now.”
Yes, poor Merry is cast in the same vein as the famously troubled and fractured psyches of female characters rendered by Shirley Jackson in The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I was delighted to read the allusions to what are two of my favorite novels of all time. It’s no surprise, considering author Tremblay presides over the board of directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards.
As character, though, Merry tends to be a little too quippy and clever; sometimes this reads as annoying, sometimes, given what we know of mental illness and heredity, evidence of mania.
The engrossing family drama is complicated by the arrival of film cameras and national attention. Merry asks the novelist interviewing her for a non-fiction account of her family’s travails : “What does that say about you or anyone else that my sister’s nationally televised psychotic break and descent into schizophrenia wasn’t horrific enough?”
In the endnotes, the author proclaims this question to be the thesis statement of the novel. Themes of performance and mental illness as entertainment remain a constant background tension. Horror as entertainment is one argument that’s been done to death, but reality, particularly the misfortunes of others presented for our viewing pleasure, remains a prescient issue (think poverty porn, Extreme Home Makeover type reality shows, presentation of the “other” as fodder for laughter and entertainment and a feeling of superiority, in particular the “white trash” entertainments of Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty and a hundred other iterations.)
So, given that this is a horror novel, is it scary? I can’t help but return to The Haunting of Hill House where the existence of an actual supernatural presence remains ambiguous. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether there are ghosts or if the main character is just crazy, because either way it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying to watch your loved one slip into mental illness and become a stranger, or to believe that you could lose your own mental faculties in this manner. Aren’t demonic possession stories on one level just metaphors for this fear? I won’t even enter into discussing the political implications of demons and exorcism, because that leads to the Catholic church, the patriarchy, fear of female sexuality, etc…
I have a complicated relationship to stories of demonic possession, thanks to a little book I read called The Demonologist. Therefore I tend to find portions of the novel to be a little creepy, but I was too distracted by certain parallels between this novel and another in the denouement to be totally immersed into it.
I haven’t decided if the derivative nature of the book is vindicated by self-awareness, but I’ll admitted I devoured it in two days like a woman possessed (yeah, see what I did there?). So does that make me one of the hungry hordes, devouring tales of the misfortunes of others? Who is it really who is sick? Who is well? Are any of us?