Paul G. Tremblay

A Head Full of Ghosts

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A Head Full of Ghosts Summary

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Paul Tremblay’s fantasy thriller A Head Full of Ghosts (2015) is about a girl with schizophrenia who may also be a victim of demonic possession. A Head Full of Ghosts received an overwhelmingly positive reception upon publication for how it portrayed the nature of good and evil. It won numerous awards including the 2015 Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel. A bestselling novelist and short story writer, Tremblay also writes pieces for publications including the Los Angeles Times. He has a master’s degree in mathematics, and he is a qualified AP Calculus teacher.

A Head Full of Ghosts takes place in suburban New England. The two main characters are Marjorie and Merry Barrett. Marjorie is Merry’s older sister. When the book begins, Marjorie is a normal fourteen-year-old teenager. However, before long, she starts acting strangely. She is paranoid and she thinks that everybody is watching her. She doesn’t trust anyone, making her parents uncomfortable. At the time, Merry is only eight years old; she wants Marjorie to feel better.

Fifteen years later, from her vantage as an adult, Merry narrates what happened to Marjorie and how it broke the Bennett family apart. She recalls how terrifying it was to watch Marjorie descend into madness, and how scary it was for her parents to lose any hope of saving the family. Merry knows that she will remember the traumatic events for the rest of her life.

Everything changes for the Barrett family when Mr. Bennett, Merry and Marjorie’s father, loses his job. Their mother, Mrs. Barrett, struggles to keep food on the table. They are draining their savings, worried there will be no money left. Merry recalls it as an unsettled and insecure environment to grow up in. Around this time, Marjorie starts acting odd.

Merry’s relationship with Marjorie changes. Marjorie always read Merry sweet, heroic stories about cartoon cars and trucks fighting evil together. Now, Marjorie obsesses over gruesome and macabre books. She reads Merry frightening tales that involve excessive violence and bloodshed. When she is not terrifying Merry, Marjorie has violent outbursts. She spends most of her time alone, and she claims that she hears voices telling her to do bad things.

Unsurprisingly, Marjorie’s deteriorating mental state keeps Merry up at night. She is scared that Marjorie might hurt her. Merry cannot talk to her parents because they are worried about keeping the family home. She finds it strange that her parents have not noticed how weird Marjorie behaves all the time.

Meanwhile, Mr. Barrett turns to religion. A lapsed Catholic, Mr. Barrett returns to the Church and prays to God for salvation. Enthusiastic, he attends Church constantly. Before long, his enthusiasm borders on obsession. Mrs. Barrett worries about him because he is not actively looking for work anymore. He spends all his free time thinking about God. All the while, the Barrett family sinks further into debt and uncertainty.

One day, Merry can’t take it anymore and she confronts her parents. To Merry’s surprise, her parents understand what is going on and they have already consulted a therapist. Although the doctors claim that Marjorie has paranoid schizophrenia, Mr. Barrett isn’t so sure. He thinks there is a demon inside Marjorie. Now he is back at Church, he asks the local priest for help. When the priest first meets Marjorie, he knows that she is possessed. This is not typically schizophrenic behavior; it’s supernatural. He arranges an exorcism with the Pope’s blessing.

Mr. Barrett doesn’t think an exorcism is enough. He believes they need more help. He talks so much about Marjorie’s condition that he attracts the attention of local TV producers. The producers approach Mr. Barrett and ask him about making a reality TV show. They want to capture Marjorie’s battle with demonic forces. The priest thinks this is a great idea because it will raise the profile of the Catholic Church. Without consulting Marjorie or Mrs. Barrett, Mr. Barrett agrees to the show.

In the meantime, Marjorie asks to speak with Merry in private. She tells Merry that she is sorry for how she has acted, but she isn’t sick or possessed. She is only pretending. Merry asks Marjorie why she is doing this. Marjorie says because she wanted to star in a TV show. The producers are paying the Barrett family enough money to support them for many years. She claims that Merry will understand these things when she is older.

What Marjorie needs now is for Merry to help her stage demonic activities. Together, they construct elaborate sets and practice scary voices. They make it seem that everything is getting worse. The deeper the sisters sink into their acting roles, the harder it is to separate fact from fiction. Merry thinks that Marjorie might be possessed, or sick, after all. Marjorie’s condition is never proven either way because Tremblay wants readers to make up their own minds.