Twelve hours after finishing this book and turning it over in my head I’m still not sure if Marjorie Barrett was a) possessed by a demon. b) an incredibly bright but mentally ill young woman whose psychotic break was exacerbated by her father’s religious mania and her deteriorating family situation c)a convoluted combination of both. That conundrum is only a part makes A Head Full of Ghosts a complex and really amazing work of horror fiction that I managed to blaze through in less than 48 hours (a marvel given my lack of actual free time).
The book follows the Barrett family as they deal with their daughter Marjorie’s increasingly worsening mental illness. Their father turns to Father Wanderly, a Catholic priest who recommends an exorcism when her behavior becomes progressively disturbing. Out of mental and financial desperation (Mr. Barrett has been laid off for over a year) they agree to make Marjorie’s exorcism part of a 6 part reality series called The Possession. The ensuing disaster of the show and it’s aftermath make the series infamous in reality TV history. We hear this story fifteen years later, mainly from Meredith “Merry” Barrett, Marjorie’s little sister; also via a Fangoria blogger who is doing a fifteen year anniversary retrospective of the show. Merry,the only eyewitness we hear from, is by her own admission an unreliable narrator (one of my favorite and most infuriating narrative tropes) due mainly to the fact that she was eight years old at the time the events took place.
There is so much going on in this book that I really can’t do it justice in one review. I want to talk about it at length with other people who have read it. There are multiple cultural references that are not at all forced or overly tongue in cheek. There’s the issue of the disappearing middle class and its impact on fathers as the former breadwinners. This book is both frightening and sad as we witness this family’s tragic collapse. Looming over all of this is the possession or mental illness of poor Marjorie, who is failed by every person in the book in a position to help her. I feel like, given enough time and resources, I could write a dissertation on the cultural significance of A Head Full of Ghosts.