A Head Full of Ghosts

[Mild spoilers] As I mentioned on Twitter last night, rather than writing, I spent my evening eating the rest of the brussel sprouts and reading Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. It’s pretty brilliant. In some ways, it’s like Cabin in the Woods, in that it really, really knows its genre and the tropes in it and it knows as many or more than you do, so, even when you think you’ve guessed the trope–I, for instance, became convinced at some point that there was a little The Sixth Sense thing going on and it was going to turn out that Ken was a ghost, but no, he interacts with people–it’s usually something else. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but, also, I felt pretty sure we were riffing off one Shirley Jackson novel when, at the end, it became quite clear we were riffing off another.

But the nice thing about all the references to all the stuff that’s come before it is that sometimes, say, for instance, a name gets thrown in, like there’s a Doctor Navidson, which is obviously a reference to House of Leaves, but nothing major directly ties the story to House of Leaves. In other words, the name is an Easter Egg, not a clue. But then, when the end happens, it’s like, oh, duh, the girl’s name is Merry. It was right there in front of us the whole time. That was a clue not just a homage.

The other thing Tremblay does really well–and it pisses me off because he basically has a character explain to you exactly what he’s doing and he still does it and it still works–is to utterly misdirect your attention. He sits you in the head of his point-of-view character and points your attention out at the people she interacts with. The story asks a series of questions–the main one being whether the girl at the center of the book is mentally ill or possessed–and you read along and you form your theories and you regard how well he manages the ambiguity and leaves enough clues for it to go either way. And then you get to the end and you realize you’ve been encouraged to ponder the wrong questions, to scrutinize the wrong girl, to even envision the wrong person at the center of the book.

It’s so well done.

The other really brilliant thing he does is to sense at which points his readers are going to be “Wait, isn’t this like that part in The Exorcist?” and has his narrator say “Wait, isn’t this like that part in The Exorcist?” or the like. And he then uses the similarity/homage to add to the sense of “well, is it like The Exorcist because it’s real or because it’s fake?”

Anyway, I really liked it and I about died of jealousy, because, damn, I want to write something that smart and unsettling.