An Unsettling But Familiar Irreality, an interview with Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of…
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality,” Shirley Jackson wrote, “even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” In his unsettling new novel, A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay combines demon possession with reality TV, toying with ideas of perception, belief, and hard truth. Tremblay’s work shows us how irresistible the darker corners of imagination can be, too.
When Marjorie Barrett begins to show signs of madness, and medical treatment doesn’t offer any answers, her parents turn to their Catholic priest, Father Wanderly. The previously stable family has fallen on hard times, and when the offer of an exorcism comes just prior to an offer from a production company to film the whole thing, the Barretts hastily accept both. A Head Full of Ghosts is written from the perspective of the Barrett’s younger daughter, Merry, fifteen years after The Possession airs.
I spoke with Paul Tremblay recently about the ghosts in his head, horror in the literary world, and his new connection to Iron Man.
Heather Scott Partington: This book certainly freaked me out. I’m not usually a horror reader. But as someone unfamiliar with the genre, I appreciate the novel’s accessibility. It’s written so well. Can you talk about how this book came about? Did you decide to write something in the exorcism genre (is that a thing?), and then develop a story, or did the story idea come to you first?
Paul Tremblay: Thank you for the kind words and, yes, I’m glad I freaked you out.
In February 2013 I was doing some research for a book about an 8th grader obsessed with ending the world and stumbled across some deconstructive essays about William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. It occurred to me that while there have been recent literary updates of vampires, zombies, and werewolves, there hadn’t been much in the way of possession novels. Hollywood had pumped out a spate of possession movies that did well enough financially but they were mostly formulaic PG-13 fodder; with the exception of the first Paranormal Activity, which is clever and affective…let’s not mention the sequels. So how about a secular/skeptical exorcism novel? Why not, right? From there the two sisters, Marjorie and Merry, appeared, and I knew the story would be told from the younger, unafflicted sister’s POV. I could use Merry as a narrator to keep the reader off balance, leave people wondering if there was or wasn’t something supernatural going on.
All that and I had Bad Religion’s song “My Head Is Full of Ghosts,” running through my own head. Seriously, I think I listened to that song over 100 times that month.
HSP: It’s apparent right away how you use an alternate voice — a blog persona — to call out similarities between the family’s turn on a reality show and other famous exorcism narratives, especially The Exorcist. That’s a really clever way to offer commentary from within your own story. There’s also a frame story element of an interview. Can you talk about how these ideas became a part of AHFoG?
PT: Instead of avoiding the inevitable comparisons to The Exorcist and other horror texts, I decided to go all in, embrace the similarities and use them to my advantage. The blogger within the story lets the reader know that we’re all in on it, that we know the beats and the scares and the lore, that it’s all part of our pop cultural DNA. But that a priori knowledge doesn’t clarify what is or isn’t reality within the story, and instead serves to make things more complicated. I usually struggle with non-fiction/critical essay writing but the blog posts were so much fun and became this weird dissertation on my lifelong love/hate relationship with horror. Hopefully the push and pull at genre tropes and expectations works and still makes for a satisfyingly disturbing and creepy story.
As far as the narrative frame goes (a best-selling author interviewing Merry fifteen years after the fact), it was the opportunity to add another filter or layer to the POV; another retelling and reshaping of the story, of what it was that happened, if we’ll ever be able to know what happened at all.
HSP: Without giving anything away, there’s a strong sense of doubt that runs parallel to the ideas of demon possession and schizophrenia. This has the nice effect of knocking your reader off balance. Every time we think we might do something, we find out that we don’t — but that never feels disrespectful to the reader. It’s done well. Is that something you’ve been a fan of in your own reading and viewing?
Horror is often about how we live in the liminal, whether we want to or not.
PT: Absolutely. Ambiguity and the horror of possibility play a part in so many of my favorite horror stories: Shirley Jackson’s We Will Always Live in the Castle, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Stewart O’Nan’s The Speed Queen, and so many more. What those stories have in common is that they exist in this liminal space between the real (or what we perceive to be real) and an unsettling but familiar irreality. Horror is often about how we live in the liminal, whether we want to or not.
I wanted a similar vibe for AHFoG. Along with the different layers of narrative, I worked to keep the cases for what was really wrong with Marjorie — the supernatural-explanation and rational-explanation — in balance throughout the novel. The hope was that as I kept piling on the evidence to both sides, it would seem like either case could collapse at any time.
HSP: A Head Full of Ghosts is full of references to unexpected things — Richard Scarry, for example, and TV. It’s a nice balance of lightheartedness to give the reader breaks between the more intense scenes. Reality TV’s take on truth and investigation also feature in the book. What might potential readers be surprised to learn made it into the book? Any unexpected details or strange things from your life as you were writing it?
PT: Unlike my weirdboiled crime novels, I didn’t start this book with a detailed summary/outline. I had a beginning, ending, narrative frame, and the three part structure in mind. I winged it from there. With the book in some ways being about influence and how it affects story, I kept an open mind to the unexpected, unanticipated. I let whatever I was watching and reading seep in. And it was a fun, freeing way to work.
When you trust your subconscious enough to put something in a story and then figure out why it really needed to be there later, when that works out, aye that’s the stuff.
My daughter Emma was around Merry’s age while I was writing the novel and a lot of her personality and outrageous outbursts made it into the book. (Her, as a pre-schooler being able to shimmy up the hallway walls to the ceiling did not make it into the book…and now I’m regretting it!) The house the Barrett’s live in is a combination of my sister’s current house (sorry, Erin) and the house I grew up in. Lastly, and without getting too spoilery, there was a personal quirk I took from my older son and used it as a character detail in the beginning of the novel, almost as an afterthought. This character quirk turned out to be a vital, plot-turning detail for the ending. When you trust your subconscious enough to put something in a story and then figure out why it really needed to be there later, when that works out, aye that’s the stuff.
HSP: I had no idea until I started reading AHFoG that Pope Francis did (what was widely perceived as) an exorcism on a man in 2013 in St. Peter’s Square. How did current events or trends in TV influence the book? It seems like a dialogue between older stories and horror movies and a more contemporary sense of reality as it relates to what we can see with our own eyes, even if that is heavily edited).
PT: I had no idea either! I found it in one of my random exorcism-spinning-head-green-puke Google searches. The YouTube clip seemed innocuous enough, but then reading that so many people were convinced it was proof Pope Francis had conducted an exorcism in public was certainly an unexpected and serendipitous find. I wanted more head-spinning in the vid though. Alas.
Reality TV certainly plays a big role in the novel. Merry’s and Marjorie’s parents — due to financial desperation — agree to become the stars of a reality TV show called The Possession. I used the TV show to make things more real and less real at the same time. I’m convinced a show like that, if not in development already, could happen. I treated the why-and-how of the show as realistically as possible. Of course, we know that reality TV is hardly as real as advertised. Comparing the TV reenactments and staging, the blogger’s deconstruction of the show, and Merry’s admittedly imperfect memories makes, hopefully, for a nice dizzying affect.
Part of the appeal of the horror genre is the sense of adding to/participating in a conversation hundreds of year old…
I’m fascinated by the dialogue you described. Part of the appeal of the horror genre is the sense of adding to/participating in a conversation hundreds of year old: from oral folklore and myth to Grendel to Poe to Shirley Jackson to The Exorcist to Stephen King to last year’s wonderful The Babadook. It’s all there (the good and the bad), building and stealing from each other, and informing and reshaping. As a math guy (well, I have a master’s degree in it, anyway, and that’s what it says on the diploma, math guy) I like to think of stories, especially stories that fit within a genre tradition, as grown or developed in a manner similar to new mathematical theorems; these new discoveries as direct and indirect offshoots from previous ones.
On the other hand, on a much more macro level, I’m more than a little worried about how living in the age of information/disinformation affects our stories, how we tell them, and how it affects our perceptions, and even how we think. There’s a horror story for you: the age of influence run amuck. Amuck! I half-kid, but the blogger in my novel proposes that if Marjorie is possessed, it’s by the horrible monster that is pop culture.
HSP: One of the most compelling elements of AHFoG is how mental illness — schizophrenia — is manipulated and misconstrued by several characters. Does your book have something to say about how mental illness is mischaracterized? Or, is the 14 year old Marjorie’s affliction just a part of the conflict she feels as a character and therefore necessary in the story?
PT: It was certainly necessary to the story, the foil to being possessed by a supernatural entity. Her symptomatic behavior/irrational leaps of logic coupled with the appalling decision making of the adults, leads to the most horrific consequences. The idea that the scenes with the least amount of potentially supernatural fireworks would be the most horrific was important to me. I hope that most readers feel bad for Marjorie and see her as a tragic figure and not an evil one. She’s a fourteen-year-old girl who’s already suffering, and is then made to suffer more because of the ignorance, sexism, and manipulations of the men (her dad, the priests, the psychiatrist, the show runner) who bully their way in and never really listen to what Marjorie is telling them. Those adults are as much to blame for what ultimately happens as anyone.
HSP: What do you think some of the challenges are for contemporary horror writers? You’ve become known as a crossover from literary fiction into horror. Does that have any meaning to you, or are you one of the “genre is meaningless” guys? Who are your favorite authors of literary horror?
PT: It does have meaning to me. And the pairing of the two words “literary horror,” seems to piss off a bunch of folks.
Horror is still stigmatized by many. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, horror (or any other genre) is not inherently inferior. You still see articles crop up, usually once or twice a year with hey-is-genre-lit-innately-sucky? To wit [this] recent Guardian click-hole piece. Or Glen Duncan’s obnoxious review of Colston Whitehead’s excellent Zone One. Quoting Duncan’s first line: “Colson Whitehead is a literary novelist, but his latest book, ‘Zone One,’ features zombies, which means horror fans and gore gourmands will soon have him on their radar. He has my sympathy.” Ironically, this last sentence applies to anyone who has read Duncan’s unfortunate and misogynist sequel to his excellent The Last Werewolf. But I digress…
Despite my (not-so) cheap shot at Duncan, there are horror fans who do view the term literary as pejorative.
But the good news is that we are seeing less of the old-guard attitude toward genre and we are in the middle a golden age of horror fiction
Speaking as a contemporary horror writer, it’s frustrating having to fight that battle on two fronts. I don’t know what the solution is. But the good news is that we are seeing less of the old-guard attitude toward genre and we are in the middle a golden age of horror fiction. Lucky us! There are many talented and worthy writers engaging horror in new, imaginative, and yes, terrifying ways. For the past seven years I’ve been on the board of directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards. To quote our mission: “In recognition of the legacy of Shirley Jackson’s writing, and with permission of the author’s estate, the Shirley Jackson Awards have been established for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.” Our now seven-years worth of winners and finalists is a great snapshot of the excellent horror fiction.
All time favorite literary horror authors start with Joyce Carol Oates and Peter Straub. Below are my recent personal favorites, that I haven’t mentioned already, category style. And I only regret that I’ll inevitably leave off some great writers.
Novels: Stephen Graham Jones’ Demon Theory, Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss, Michael Cisco’s The Traitor, Brian Evenson’s Immobility, Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is for Witching, Stefan Kiesbye’s Your House Is on Fire Your Children All Gone, Sarah Langan’s The Keeper, and this year’s When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord.
Short story collections: John Langan’s The Wide Carnivorous Sky, Livia Llewellyn’s Engines of Desire, Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool, Laird Barron’s The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters, and Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners.
HSP: Robert Downey Jr. I mean. Robert. Downey. Jr. Focus Features. The whole thing. That must have been a good day, when you found out A Head Full of Ghosts is going to be made into a movie?
PT: It certainly was! The possibilities are fun to think about. Screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski are currently working on the screenplay. I’ve tweeted at them (that sounds threatening, doesn’t it? I don’t mean it to be.) that I entrust Marjorie and Merry to them. And they didn’t block me! An omen of great things to come. Not a Damien from the movie The Omen. That would be bad.
My younger brother Dan is convinced that the father (not the father father, er, a priest, but, you know, the father, the dad, ugh…) John Barrett is our dad. He’s not. My brother is a terrible person for thinking such a thing. Still, Dan sent me my favorite text after the Focus Features option was announced:
“Iron Man is our dad.”