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Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon August 3, 2015 - 5:40am

'A Head Full of Ghosts' by Paul Tremblay

Discussion has officially started!

Synopsis: A chilling thriller that brilliantly blends domestic drama, psychological suspense, and a touch of modern horror, reminiscent of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.

To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts’ plight. With John, Marjorie’s father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.

Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface—and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.

Author: Paul Tremblay is the author of A Head Full of Ghosts (William Morrow), coming June 2, 2015. He's also the author of the novels The Little Sleep (Henry Holt), No Sleep till Wonderland (Henry Holt), Swallowing a Donkey's Eye (CZP), and Floating Boy and the Girl Who Couldn't Fly (co-written with Stephen Graham Jones).

He is the author of the short story collection IN THE MEAN TIME (CZP). His essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and numerous "year's best" anthologies. He is the co-editor of four anthologies including CREATURES: Thirty Years of Monster Stories (with John Langan). Paul is the president of the board of directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards. He lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts, has a master's degree in Mathematics, and has no uvula. You can find him online at www.paultremblay.net.

Discussion has officially started!

Paul Tremblay had one of my favorite stories in both Warmed and Bound and in The Booked Anthology. I've been meaning to read some of his longer work forever and for some reason haven't gotten to any. But this book here is getting tons of attention. Everybody I know has loved it. So I think it will make a killer discussion. Really looking forward to reading it and looking forward to what you guys think about it.

Purchase "A Head Full of Ghosts" Here

Get to reading!

Bob Pastorella's picture
Bob Pastorella from Groves, Texas is reading murder books trying to stay hip, I'm thinking of you, and you're out there so Say your prayers, Say your prayers, Say your prayers August 3, 2015 - 6:31am

Oh boy. I loved this book so much I might read it again for the discussion. 

Angel Colón's picture
Angel Colón from The Bronx now living in New Jersey is reading A Big Ol' Pile of Books August 3, 2015 - 5:41pm

One of the best books of the year, hands down. Folks are going to have a blast reading this one.

Humboldt Lycanthrope's picture
Humboldt Lycanthrope from California is reading Sing, Unburied, Sing August 9, 2015 - 3:53pm

Just started it.  Looking forward to the discussion.

Rob's picture
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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this August 10, 2015 - 4:35pm

I have been meaning to read this and feel like I should but this book looks scary and I am a-scared.

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Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 20, 2015 - 4:18am

In case you missed it, Stephen King tweeted about this dark, creepy novel. How cool is that? AND Focus Features, with Robert Downey, Jr. is developing the film. Congratulations, Paul!

@stephenking: "A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS, by Paul Tremblay: Scared the living hell out of me, and I'm pretty hard to scare."

Could you tell us a bit more about how you made these things happen, Paul? I'm a huge fan of King, and I know he's not easy to get to. AND, my agent and I are working on film rights for Disintegration, but that's also hard to do. Any insider information or tips here?

Finishing up the book now, look forward to the conversation in here in September.

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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this August 26, 2015 - 5:58am

I am a human adult AND a father and I just finished the first section of the book and there is a part of me that is too scared to continue. 

(I have had a lifelong issue with exerocism stories because of a traumatic incident that took place after a viewing of THE EXORCIST that I don't want to talk about.)

So cheers to Paul on that. Jeez this fucking book. So good. 

Rob's picture
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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this August 27, 2015 - 8:10am

Finished. I read the last 30 pages with my jaw on the floor.

How soon can we talk about the ending? 

Pete's picture
Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon August 27, 2015 - 10:02am

Technically - discussion isn't supposed to start until the 1st.

But I'm never going to stop a discussion if you want to get it started early. Go for it.

Just label anything that's spoilery with SPOILERS so we don't ruin anything for people.

NikKorpon's picture
NikKorpon from Baltimore is reading Book and books and books and August 28, 2015 - 7:07am

I'll start with: Holy Fuck.

I think that about sums it up.

And the SGJ joke. That was pretty great.

Rob's picture
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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this August 28, 2015 - 11:26am

I liked the SGJ joke but it kind of pulled me out a little. 

That said, I will second: Holy fuck. 

I don't think I've ever read something that was so viscerally unsettling. The ending subverts your expectations again and again and again. It's like body blows, rights until the last paragraph. 

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters August 31, 2015 - 11:05am

This book is so great it made me log into LitReactor!  (just kidding, but not really, because I seldom stop by, but for real this book, guys THIS BOOK!)

Are we doing spoilers and all the good stuff yet?  I thought this discussion was already over and then realized it is really JUST STARTING. 

I was just talking to a friend about this book and he brought up so many little details that I hadn't really thought about at first and now I already want to re-read it.  I can't remember the last book I felt that way about. 

So I want to start with something little and easy, but something I felt was important...

SPOILER:

When Marjorie's mother did not actually bind her wrists.  I like to believe this was her giving the finger to the man.  Saying fuck you silently in a situation she feels she has completely lost control over.  But it could have just as easily been a scripted plot device from the producers - something they gave her in advance in order to make it look real. In order to scare the viewers at home. 

Also, that motherfucking bite was so incredibly brutal..  eesh

 

Pete's picture
Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon September 1, 2015 - 4:35am

Go for the all the spoilers! Just maybe label them (like you did).

 

SPOILERS - kinda.

I really enjoyed how the book can be taken either way. The book is written from an admittedly unreliable narrator - she actually tells you that she lies. And then there are instances where she says things like - her mother didn't bind Marjorie's wrists - she never saw if she did or didn't because you couldn't see what her mother was doing.

And that bite was not something that somebody in their right mind, that was just trying to put on a show, would do. She was definitely sick or possessed. There was no believing her story that she was doing things to make the family money.

This discussion is going to make me want to pull it back out and reread it as well.

Paul Tremblay's picture
Paul Tremblay from Just outside of Boston, MA is reading Everything I can September 1, 2015 - 5:46am

Thanks for the kind words, folks! So amazingly cool of litreactor to choose the book and host a discussion.  

Richard: I just got real lucky with Stephen King. Yeah, I'd sent a copy of the book to his assistant but she told me upfront it was a total crapshoot as to what he picks up and reads. There could've been more people behinds the scenes, but two people (I didn't know they did this until after they did it) sent Stephen a recommendation to read the book (and one even sent him his galley of the book). 

Focus features? My lit agent sent the manuscript, right after it sold, to a contact (who is no longer there) at Allegiance Theater, and then they lined up two screenwriters and managed to get Team Downey intersted, and then a couple of offers of production companies. My LA agent did all the negotiating.  

BOOK SPOILERS (not really)

I'm not sure what I should or shouldn't say about the book. I wouldn't dream of ruining anyone's take on the book, and only say that I tried to write the book so that there could be multiple takes on what actually happened.

For people in the know, I knew name-dropping Stephen Graham Jones would drop folks out of the book, heh, but I couldn't resist. I'd actually started off with the parents being named John Langan and Sarah Langan. I changed their last names to Barrett (named after a character in The Legend of Hell House) because it would've been too in-jokey leaving them as Langans. 

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters September 1, 2015 - 6:10am

All Spoilers All the Time:

A friend of mine (who may or may not be dropping in here, but I can't wait for him to get his butt in gear so I'm stealing his thoughts) came to me with the theory that Merry was actually the one possessed all along, which really turned me on my head. 

I had from the start been working with the assumption that Marjorie was mentally ill.  There was never anything that made me think she was anything but mentally ill and this was all a story of escalation, things going too far, and the extremes people will go to when faced with problems that seem too big.  And it was really scary.  As time went on I began to very much buy in to Marjorie's assessment that John was not of sound mind.  I still believe that's right.  But it had never really occurred to me to look at Merry as an actual player in the events and not just the observer.  And now that I've been presented with this idea I can't stop thinking about it. 

It's like when you finally realize that Bruce Willis is dead the ENTIRE TIME and you have to give it a re-watch with this knowledge to see how it holds up. 

Also, Fun Fact: My mother used to tell me when I was little that she was positive she had died in the molasses flood in a past life because she hated sticky things so much - she was basically phobic of syrup.  I'd never heard anyone else ever talk about the molasses flood until I read this book and I have to say, that very simple detail chilled me personally for that reason. 

Pete's picture
Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon September 1, 2015 - 6:48am

There were a few times in the book where I started thinking that it may be Merry who was possessed as well.

Utah's picture
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Utah from Fort Worth, TX is reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry September 1, 2015 - 12:54pm

And yet I am torn about Merry! Goddamn it! Part of me still thinks Merry was possessed the entire time and played a remarkable game hiding evil stuff behind the activities of her mentally ill sister.

On the other hand, I wonder if...man, so many options, really...if Marjorie was possessed, but then at the exorcism her demon leapt into Merry. Because of a couple things. First, in the developmental parts of the book, Marjorie is a very gifted seat-of-her-pants story-teller. Good stories that quickly become unsettling. Merry doesn't really do that, not as a young girl (and that could very well just be because she is a young girl). But she does do it as an adult, riffing with her interviewer. A carryover personality trait from a demon that possessed first the older, then the younger, sister?

Also, Marjorie's insistence that Merry attend the exorcism because otherwise someone would get hurt. I'm relatively certain that Mr. Tremblay didn't write a remarkable book about possession -- real or otherwise -- without knowledge of his basic demon-possession lore. So he'd know from his Gospels (assuming we're talking about those same, traditional demons) that cast-out demons tend to go somewhere else, even if it's into a herd of pigs...or a little girl.

On the other hand, for that to be the case, we would assume that whatever demon might have possessed Marjorie would have to leave her during the exorcism, and it certainly doesn't seem that happened. I don't think the exorcism ever actually finished, what with the biting and everything. So...everything I just said was possibly full of shit.

I still, after working all this out in print, think that Merry was possessed, and I think she was possessed the entire time. Rooms were only frosty when she was in them (and that occurred into her adult-hood) and there was no culmination of the exorcism which would have cast a demon from her sister into her.

OH, hey, also: this is a fuckin awesome book, and I wanted to thank Mr. Tremblay again for writing it.

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters September 1, 2015 - 1:11pm

Spoiler:

I can't believe I never thought of the possibility of Merry's possession. In fact, I really didn't consider that anyone was ever even a little bit possessed.  Which really isn't like me.  Ghosts and possessions are my favorite types of horror and I generally suspend all disbelief instantly.  I'm not sure what changed for me here.  Maybe it was the religious freak father - I was too eager to prove him wrong. 

Also, Merry totally makes up stories in her youth.  Like what happened in the basement with Marjorie.  She lied to the production team/film crew a couple of times, right? 

But I don't think I could be convinced that Marjorie was ever possessed. Mostly because of how upset she got then that desk drawer popped open. 

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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this September 1, 2015 - 1:19pm

That last moment really did it for me--when the coffee shop is getting colder and there's no clear explanation as to why.

The thing I've been thinking about a lot is: What if this actually subverts the expectations of an exorcism narrative? Because an exorcism narrative is essentially: Person is possessed, demon is bad, fucked up shit happens, someone comes in to cast out demon, shit gets more fucked up, demon is cast out. So it's a clear escalation of story until the demon is gone. 

But what if this is a different kind of take on that? Maybe Merry doesn't consciously know she's got a demon in her? What if Merry knows she's got a demon in her but this isn't the kind of demon that likes to draw attention, just liked to fuck with people, and maybe the whole thing with Marjorie was a game? 

So whereas you go into a story like this and expect someone to be possessed by this big flailing scary thing--maybe the real evil was lurking over in the shadows, playing games with everyone? 

I'm not so sure there's supposed to be a definitive answer. Maybe the temperature drop is just a stinger to fuck with the reader and inspire some thought/discussion.

But that's one of the reasons I loved the shit out of this book. I rarely revisit books these days because I've got too much on my plate, but in a year or so I might go back to this one, because I feel like a second read might reveal some deeper takes. 

Utah's picture
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Utah from Fort Worth, TX is reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry September 1, 2015 - 1:24pm

Now that you mention it, I agree. She did make up some decent whoppers, even in her youth. She had a pretty good mentor for that, on the whole.

I also agree about Marjorie. The more I thought about her the less likely it seemed that she was possessed. Everything she was doing had already been done in some movie. I think she was just brilliant and playing some deep game (and almost winning, if that can be a thing in the situation she helped create). The fact that a parlor trick derailed her was the sad result of her mental illness getting the better of her.

That part of the story winding up as it did, I think this book can be classified as a Greek tragedy (I really did kinda hope for a chorus at certain points in the book).

 

Utah's picture
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Utah from Fort Worth, TX is reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry September 1, 2015 - 1:27pm

Rob, that's exactly what I was thinking, and for the same spooky cold-coffee-shop reason. That Merry was possessed by a demon that was into some more insidious, guerilla-style shit than jumping-cat antics.

APerson's picture
APerson September 1, 2015 - 3:10pm

That's an amazing theory and one that I must say never occured to me. The insidious ambiguity of the book is definitely its greatest asset. It's something I've personally never seen pulled off, but maybe some of you will be able to point me in that direction. This book made me think about it and digest it for quite a long time. It begs re-reading. I find that it took horror, kicking and screaming into 2015. It was also so mature and subtle. 

Personally, I relished the shout out to Stephen Graham Jones. Maybe readers who pick up this book based on its current visibility and popularity will be encouraged to check him out because of it. All hail bringing attention to the small press masters. 

 

Utah's picture
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Utah from Fort Worth, TX is reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry September 1, 2015 - 3:15pm

^^^ This person is obviously Stephen Graham Jones.

Welcome, Dr. Jones!

APerson's picture
APerson September 1, 2015 - 3:28pm

Haha, unfortunately I am not! I'm looking forward to other thoughts and theories though. I will say that the most unsettling part of the book to me was Marjorie's growing things story and essentially predicting what was going to happen with her father. 

Paul Tremblay's picture
Paul Tremblay from Just outside of Boston, MA is reading Everything I can September 1, 2015 - 3:45pm

Utah and APerson: Thanks so much for the kind words!

APerson: A couple of great somewhat ambiguous horror-ish novels that certainly informed my book: Stewart O'Nan's THE SPEED QUEEN (I named my Marjorie after the wonderfully unreliable Marjorie of this book. Stewart is one of the three dedications in my book--daughter and Shirley Jackson are the other two). Dave Zeltserman's The Caretaker of Lorne Field is a quick and fun book about maybe plant monsters and Dave does a great job throughout the whole novel balancing is the dude crazy or are the plant monsters real. 

 

Everyone: This is so cool, and too much fun.

 

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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this September 1, 2015 - 5:57pm

Paul--you said you wrote it so there could be multiple takes. 

I don't want to know specifics (because where's the fun in that) but to your mind, is there a "correct" take? Do you know what the truth is, or is it a little open on your end, too? 

And, as a writer--how does it feel writing a puzzle box of a book and then see people debating it and put their own spin on it? 

Is it a relief that people caught on? Nerve-wracking? Disappointing that they're not catching certain things? 

Bob Pastorella's picture
Bob Pastorella from Groves, Texas is reading murder books trying to stay hip, I'm thinking of you, and you're out there so Say your prayers, Say your prayers, Say your prayers September 1, 2015 - 6:17pm

See, now all this talk about Merry being the one, which I didn't think of until someone mentioned it above, has got my head spinning right now. Really? Was I that dumb? Holy shit...the levels, the levels, I'm going to read it again. 

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters September 2, 2015 - 6:51am

Bob - I'm right there with you.  No worries.

Today I'm thinking more about the character of the mother.  I generally found her to be the most sympathetic in the story, because despite the fact that at some point she did agree to something, at least a little bit, she was really and truly bowled over by an overwhelming number of men who "knew better". When really she knew better!  She had it right from the beginning, Marjorie was in therapy - which is what any rational person would be doing.  And this giant father-knows-best patriarchy comes in and tells her to stay quiet.  And sometimes she does.  That's one of the more tragic things.  She doubts herself. 

Also - going along this new (to me) idea that Merry was possessed.. that leads me to the idea that Karen could very well be some sort of manifestation of that possession.

Paul Tremblay's picture
Paul Tremblay from Just outside of Boston, MA is reading Everything I can September 2, 2015 - 9:22am

"I don't want to know specifics (because where's the fun in that) but to your mind, is there a "correct" take? Do you know what the truth is, or is it a little open on your end, too?"

Nah, I don't think there's necessarily a correct take for any book, within reason. I started off thinking i would write a secular/skeptical exorcism novel and I worked hard to make it seem like the supernatural was as possible as the rational side, and by the time I made it to the end, I wasn't really leaning one way or the other. I think I'm of two minds: during the day, the athiest/agnostic me thinks Marjorie is ill and all the outside forces imposed upon her and the family made it all worse. At night, in the dark, I think I believe something else.

"And, as a writer--how does it feel writing a puzzle box of a book and then see people debating it and put their own spin on it?"

So much fun. I'd dreamed that people would talk about the book like this (and not be too pissed off with an ambiguous ending to a novel). So I love every second of it!

"Is it a relief that people caught on? Nerve-wracking? Disappointing that they're not catching certain things?"

Definitely a relief. I'm confused by the minority of folks who say that the ending petered out, or nothing happened. I mean, I don' t know...

SPOILER!!!!

 

 

 

...I tried to make it so that Merry being forced/coerced into poisoning her family is the worst most horrible thing that happened in the novel. I don't see how (if having invested a read in the whole book) a reader wouldn't be affected more by that than the typical exorcism type stuff, you know? When Merry says to Rachel (in part 2)  “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?”, that's a question that seems to fit for the ending too. 

Also, maybe people didn't pick up on the coffee shop's heat not working and it getting cold and Merry's breath being visible in the very last pages. I thought I made it too obvious. Heh. Maybe if you listen to the audio version, say, it's harder to pick up on that.

 

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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this September 2, 2015 - 11:14am

Thanks for the thoughtful answers. 

SPOILERS

For as horrifying as it was that Merry poisoned her family, the real gutshot for me was how she was found. The poisoning is one thing. For a child to have to endure several days of sitting underneath the rotting corpses of her family just about killed me. That's the moment when I'm thinking "There is no way this person could have gotten through that without getting ruined on a fundamental level."

And the breath thing, man--I was reading this on my commute home, standing in a big group of people on the ferry, and my mouth was hanging open. Full body shudder. I love that. 

 

Anna Gutmann's picture
Anna Gutmann from Ohio is reading American Gods September 2, 2015 - 11:15am

I just started reading this book today without even knowing it was book of the month! Thus far I'm REALLY enjoying it, but then again I'm only about 30 pages in ... still, incredibly solid writing and very intriguing beginning. Hoping to finish it all by tomorrow night or Friday afternoon... It's one of those books that's hard to put down!

And I think I see the author of the book weighing in above? Thanks for partaking in the discussion and giving us such an awesome story to read! :-)

I may return to this discussion later (once the spoilers won't affect me), but until then, it's back to sticking my nose in a book! 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies September 2, 2015 - 1:43pm

Richard: I just got real lucky with Stephen King. Yeah, I'd sent a copy of the book to his assistant but she told me upfront it was a total crapshoot as to what he picks up and reads. There could've been more people behinds the scenes, but two people (I didn't know they did this until after they did it) sent Stephen a recommendation to read the book (and one even sent him his galley of the book).

Focus features? My lit agent sent the manuscript, right after it sold, to a contact (who is no longer there) at Allegiance Theater, and then they lined up two screenwriters and managed to get Team Downey intersted, and then a couple of offers of production companies. My LA agent did all the negotiating.

Thanks for sharing all of that, Paul. Very exciting. Best of luck with it all! Still finishing up the book, will hop in here when I can read the spoilers. But so far, very disturbing book. Love it.

Humboldt Lycanthrope's picture
Humboldt Lycanthrope from California is reading Sing, Unburied, Sing September 2, 2015 - 8:45pm

Paul, in many ways your novel is an indictment against reality TV shows, how they manipulate situations and twist the truth, ultimately destroying the lives of the people who are their subject matter.  Did you start out with this as a theme or did it come about organically in the writing process? Also, can you tell us a little about how you personally feel about reality TV and the strange cult of personality it has created?

Paul Tremblay's picture
Paul Tremblay from Just outside of Boston, MA is reading Everything I can September 3, 2015 - 6:07am

HUMBOLDT: I went into the book thinking/knowing that the reality TV intrusion would make everything worse. It's pretty clear to me that so many of the trainwreck kind of reality TV does damage the lives of those who participate in it. Still, there's an undeniable appeal to the shows, and their ubiquity, especially on purportedly educational channels like Discovery and Animal Planet (which, as far as I can tell, rarely has any shows with animals in them). I mean I watch Chopped and have watched stuff like Suvivorman and Finding Bigfoot and other stuff. I think even those lesser-evils of reality TV strike that bogus "American Dream" chord, you know? That anyone can make it and be famous, because look, there they are on TV.

 

ROB:

 

MASSIVE SPOILER (heh)

How Merry was found. Right. That is awful (made my wife cry). I had planned the poisoning would happen but that part of it was sort of on the fly, with the image of Merry sitting there with her mother's thumb in her mouth occuring to me at the moment of writing it. The copy editor at William Morrow thought it was a typo, that Merry was sitting there with her own thumb in her mouth. I made sure it stayed her mother's thumb. That was an important image to me because of exactly what you said, Rob; there's no accounting for the damage that could do to Merry, and from either a rational or supernatural perspective, could cast doubt on everything Merry says becaus maybe (probably?) she's really messed up. 

Humboldt Lycanthrope's picture
Humboldt Lycanthrope from California is reading Sing, Unburied, Sing September 3, 2015 - 6:57am

Paul, you call The Exorcist "one of the most conservative horror movies ever," in that the "pure, pristine little white girl [is] saved by white men and religion."  I couldn't agree more, and honestly, this section of your novel, which is a blog written by Mary, is one of my favorite parts of the book.  In this chapter you discuss horror and popular culture, referencing everything from American Horror Story and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Nabakov and Tolkein.  Was one of your goals with the book to usurp the conservative agenda of The Exorcist?

Also, you discuss the sexual issues regarding tales of exorcism and demonic possession in great detail in this chapter.  Do you think society in general has such a hard time dealing with the sexual awakening of our children, our daughters in particular, that they tend to search for outside influences, such as demons (or even movies and reality TV) to blame for their childrens' awakening libidos?

Anna Gutmann's picture
Anna Gutmann from Ohio is reading American Gods September 3, 2015 - 5:29pm

I just finished this book about an hour ago, and I have some stuff to say, starting with:

OH. MY. GOD.

(possible spoilers)

1. First on my mind is that I was blown away by the execution of what I like to call an "unanswered ending." You know, the ones where you're left not knowing what's really going on, but KIND OF having an idea, but leaving you with just enough doubt where you have to have a good long THINK. I've read stories where the author has held too much back, thus leaving the reader way too frustrated. I've read others that give too much away, and nothing's a surprise. But here, man ... This was nuts! I am just so impressed. And throughout the tale, too, I thoroughly enjoyed that creepy feeling of not knowing what is real and what isn't. The unreliable narrator is pulled off SO WELL.

2. I had the same types of theories throughout reading that a lot of the people above had. But how I feel ... And I kind of want to direct this @Paul himself in case he can answer it directly ... The way I feel is that the point of the entire set-up was that you're not SUPPOSED to know what really is or isn't. Yes, hints were dropped that Merry is the one possessed. Hints were dropped that the possession as a whole was a farce. Etcetera, etcetera. But, like, maybe you as the author went into the story knowing that there WAS NO ANSWER!? That the answer differs to become whatever the reader, in the end, wants it to be? And this was something that helped you stay ambiguous of the final answer throughout the narrative? And as a result, even if a reader asked you point blank what the truth was, you couldn't answer, because there *is no answer*. Or maybe I'm just overthinking it all and you alone hold the secret for what the actual truth is in terms of theories :-).

3. Did anyone else catch how well the older Merry blended with the younger Merry? I could totally tell these "two" characters were the same people from differing timelines based on their actions and personality. I could envision little Merry growing up and speaking/acting like older Merry does. I don't think I can name another book where I was left with such a strong impression of that.

4. Finally, the two scenes that stuck with me the most: the biting scene (I actually gagged a little), and the explanation of Merry remembering her Aunt finding her, but really being discovered under the table with her dead family. Jesus. That really unsettled me!

Anyway, those are my first impressions on the book now that I'm done. It was awesome! Hope everyone else enjoyed it as much as I did.

Pete's picture
Pete from Detroit is reading Red Dragon September 4, 2015 - 5:08am

I have a question for everybody that Anna's post made me think about.

With open endings, leaving everything up to interpretation - most times it just leaves you frustrated, and very few times it's completely satisfying.

What makes one frustrating and the other satisfying?
Why was this one so successful while others fail?

I ask because mostly I like a good story over great writing. I'll take both, obvisously, but if I can only choose one, I'm going for story. I'm one of those people that will read a book and be loving it, and then the ending comes along and it doesn't answer anything - and I'm pissed. With this one, I was very happy with the ending.

Paul Tremblay's picture
Paul Tremblay from Just outside of Boston, MA is reading Everything I can September 4, 2015 - 6:20am

HL: I couldn't have said it better myself both in terms of the policits and gender/sexuality issues. I mean, in the exorcist, those anxieties are so in your face, right? I definitely wanted to comment on the politics of conservative/reactionary horror, and try to describe what I think are the best kind of horror stories. I actually wrote an essay for Nightmare Magazine on this:

http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/nonfiction/the-h-word-the-politics-of-...

ANNA: So glad you liked it! Thanks! and so nice of you say (that young Merry and older merry fit together voice wise). 

In regards to point 2...I'll never tell. ;)  Heh. I know, I'm annoying. But I think no answer is just as legit as thinking Marjorie was mentally ill, or she was possessed, or Merry was possessed.

PETE: (again, thank you). I'm looking forward to hearing what other folks say to that question. As a reader, I think ambiguous endings work as long as it feels fair, or emtionally true to the story that happened before it. The story has to, what, earn that trust from me. 

 

 

Humboldt Lycanthrope's picture
Humboldt Lycanthrope from California is reading Sing, Unburied, Sing September 4, 2015 - 7:06am

@ Pete, I am actually a fan of ambiguous endings and to me the answer to your question is simply the quality of the writing, i.e. the complexity of the plot and the depth of the characters.  There is a satisfaction that comes with reading a well written and complex story that can override any sense of anger that the ending didn't answer every question, or let certain issues remain a mystery.  

I also think it is in the level of the ambiguity.  

For instance, in Head Full of Ghosts, I feel that on the surface Paul is more or less saying that there was no demonic activity at all, that  all the drama stems from a perfect storm of mental health issues, antiquated religious dogma,  and exploitation by the TV people.  

For instance, Mary tells us that the scene in the basement was complete fiction, Marjorie never filled her mouth with dirt.  Her mother never bound her as well.  

However, he leaves just enough doubt, just enough hints that perhaps all is not as it seems to make you question what really happened.  From the discussion that is going on here it is obvious that he does this very well, so @ Paul: Bravo, sir.

Anna Gutmann's picture
Anna Gutmann from Ohio is reading American Gods September 4, 2015 - 7:36am

@Pete/Humboldt - for me it's all about the information provided. I feel that "Unanswered endings" are some of the hardest to pull off, because it's a precarious balance of giving just enough information to get the reader thinking and on board, but withholding just enough that the conclusion is open to interpretation. In A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul pretty much lays all the information out for us--the whole chronology of events, more or less--but he does so with an unreliable narrator, which then makes us question the information that he's given in the first place. In other words, a perfect balance. I hope that makes sense. As I mentioned above, if a writer doesn't lay out the story in enough detail, an unanswered ending makes me SO frustrated ... But if it's laid out too obviously, then I get bored. I guess it's kind of like building a puzzle. I want all the pieces there in the box save for one or two, but I don't want instructions to cheat off of, or to look at the photo on the box as a guide. I want to put things together for myself and guess at what is missing. But if too many pieces are missing, there isn't even a way to guess what the picture was supposed to be in the first place!

@Paul - love your answer, haha! I feel like sometimes being a writer is like being a magician. Never give away your secrets!

Humboldt Lycanthrope's picture
Humboldt Lycanthrope from California is reading Sing, Unburied, Sing September 4, 2015 - 8:08am

@Anna, well said.  I agree completely.  Paul certainly did a wonderful job.  I love the way Mary, right in the beginning, admits she doesn't even like giving a straight answer about something as benign as her age, stating that she likes, "watching people struggle with the math in their heads."  

Anna Gutmann's picture
Anna Gutmann from Ohio is reading American Gods September 4, 2015 - 11:43am

@Humboldt - I loved that part too! It's as if, right from the start, her personality was built around the "unreliable narrator" condition, and that feature was crafted into her actions and dialogue so well. At the same time he kept that aspect subtle enough that it was almost like a subliminal message in my head, telling me to question everything!

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters September 4, 2015 - 12:20pm

Pete: On the topic of open endings...

This is so tricky!  Because I know I find myself irritated more often than not by a book that doesn't deliver at the end.  But I think it's not so much about if it is open or closed, and more about if the resolution makes sense.  If the entire book has been building to this conclusion, then I'll be satisfied.  If however the entire book has been building and giving me definitive answers and then at the last minute delivers nothing...that's terrible. 

What do I mean? 

Okay, if it's a novel with hard facts that are being delivered to you with zero mystery really involved, then it makes no sense to then give me an open ending, you withheld nothing the entire time, why now?

On the other hand you take a book like HFoG

(spoilery-ish)

and think about even just the last third or so, the entire set up is meant to keep you off guard, you are directly told that you don't know what is going on (think about the blog that details the walk-through of the house and how we don't really know the layout).  The entire book has been giving us half-truths, flat out lies, and mysteries.  It has been up for debate through the entire read, so it makes sense for the ending to stay in line with that. 

Humboldt Lycanthrope's picture
Humboldt Lycanthrope from California is reading Sing, Unburied, Sing September 4, 2015 - 4:17pm

Paul, I loved your essay in Nightmare.  Thank you so much for the link.  :)

You have Mary state that she likes to imagine Marjorie "possessed by the vast, awesome and awful monster that is popular culture," and, Marjorie claims to be possessed H.P. Lovecraft's dream witch Yidhra.  Are you trying to say that pop culture and horror literature have some responsibility for children acting out in strange, violent, and sexual ways?  

Paul Tremblay's picture
Paul Tremblay from Just outside of Boston, MA is reading Everything I can September 5, 2015 - 5:45am

@HL Jeeze, no, and I hope no one comes away thinking that. I hope that people think that it's the adults making everything worse for Marjorie (whether she's sick or possessed) and not anything she might've watched or read.

I like think Marjorie is speaking for all of us with the pop culture quip (and echos what happens in the blog posts). I'm a pop culture junky and I worry if that's a good or a bad thing (particulary as so many people are now taking a pop culture candidate for president seriously). I like the idea of people being possessed by this huge conglomeration of shitty ideas and good idea and forgettable ideas that make up pop culture. 

Humboldt Lycanthrope's picture
Humboldt Lycanthrope from California is reading Sing, Unburied, Sing September 5, 2015 - 4:02pm

Lol, I thought so, especially after reading your essay.  I just wanted to hear your thoughts on that quote and didn't know how else to phrase it.

Who are your influences?

Paul Tremblay's picture
Paul Tremblay from Just outside of Boston, MA is reading Everything I can September 6, 2015 - 4:48pm

Favorite writers include Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Amy Bender, Stewart O'Nan, Shirley Jackson, Kurt Vonnegut, Laird Barron, John Langan, Victor LaValle, Michael Cisco, and so many more. 

Music has always been a big influence too. I often go to songs and lyrics for ideas/inspiration. The title of GHOSTS is a riff on Bad Religion's "My Head Is Full of Ghosts."

Humboldt Lycanthrope's picture
Humboldt Lycanthrope from California is reading Sing, Unburied, Sing September 6, 2015 - 5:47pm

I noticed that about the title.  I love Bad Religion.  I'm an old punk rocker myself.  Do you consider your writing an extension of the punk ideal to disrupt, point out society's flaws, and make people look at the world differently? 

Angel Colón's picture
Angel Colón from The Bronx now living in New Jersey is reading A Big Ol' Pile of Books September 8, 2015 - 9:24am

Heya Paul. :)

So I had time to think, and I'd asked you around release time if you felt reality TV deadened empathy. In keeping with that line of thought, I wondered quite a bit if thos eexpectations that are loaded onto the people who star in these terrible shows - the way they'll inhabit what was initially exagerrated aspects of their personality and begin to front load that version of themselves.

So really, just as thought/random question: is it out of bounds to see Merry as someone suffering from a prolonged version of that? Could she merely be possessed with that frontloaded expectation of what the television and audience expected her to be?

Hope that makes sense. Having worked in TV (for a short, short, and awful time) that aspect of the story stuck with me most. There's something awful about the exploitation of reality.

Paul Tremblay's picture
Paul Tremblay from Just outside of Boston, MA is reading Everything I can September 8, 2015 - 4:08pm

Angel: I didn't know you worked in TV. "So really, just as thought/random question: is it out of bounds to see Merry as someone suffering from a prolonged version of that? Could she merely be possessed with that frontloaded expectation of what the television and audience expected her to be?" That's brilliant! I wish I wrote it. ;) Seriously, yeah, I think that's more than fair. No matter what folks thought/think about Marjorie and Merry, I hoped that they would feel bad for both of them because the adults came in and absolutely made everything worse. 

 

HL: I'm a huge fan of punk music and I would never presume to call myself punk (he of the middle class lifestyle and whatnot), but I do like to think my work reflects a certain punk aesthetic, and trying to look at the world differently is near or at the top of my list. 

 

AND TO ALL: I hope I'm not mucking up any conversation about what you all want talk about with the author horning in etc. I'm back to school now so I'll probably only be able to check in every couple of days or so. So, discuss. ;)

Anna Gutmann's picture
Anna Gutmann from Ohio is reading American Gods September 9, 2015 - 3:32pm

@Paul you are not hampering the discussion at all! It's nice to see an author engaging in the conversation!

@ Everyone ... Did you guys find this novel to be scary, or just more unsettling, or something else altogether ... And why?

I definitely found it to give me that "unsettled" type of horror feeling, and am wondering if anyone else had the same impression!