Derek Quinlan looks at A Head Full of Ghosts and the tropes of Horror

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A Head Full of Ghosts is a book that seems to be on everyone's 'To Read' this year. And it is definitely one of Derek Quinlan's favourites from the year just gone. It is a horror novel, and one of the scariest I have read in a long, long while. Stephen King tweet a few months past that it was the scariest thing he had read all year, which is a display of just how unnerving and thrilling this novel really is. So what has so many people terrified? And why are so many horror fans proclaiming it as a work of genius?

On the surface, A Head Full of Ghosts is fairly standard horror fare. The plot concerns a standard suburban New England family, who are torn apart when one of the daughters begins to display signs of schizophrenia, her display begins to scare her parents and younger sister Merry, the main character, to the point where they think she is being possessed. This is the basic story, and if that sounds a lot like the famous film The Exorcist (another Derek Quinlan favourite) it's because it's meant to, this is a novel for horror fans through and through, and there are a myriad of references to other horror staples throughout.

Majorie (the possessed little girl), must stay in a room with yellow wallpaper. This is a reference to Charlotte Perkins Stetson's famous short story. This allusion works in two different ways. It highlights the difficulty the family have in choosing to believe that Majorie is mentally ill, or if she is actually possessed by some form of demon. They have to grapple with something that barely seems possible and as a result suffer themselves. It also works on the level that the original Yellow Wallpaper short story was a highly regarded piece of feminist literature, and was a damning critique of the way that men at the time would constantly belittle women's feelings and attribute them to medical issues. In A Head Full of Ghosts, the treatment of Majorie goes through men, who try and fit her condition into terms they understand. One of Derek Quinlan's favourite characters, Father Wanderly, is a priest who puts her condition in satanic terms in an attempt to fix her, and her own father refuses to listen to her or her mother in his attempts to cure her ailment.

The book is full of little horror references like these that add depth to the novel but there is another way the novel includes the tropes of horror, and that's the meta elements that the novel plays with constantly. The framing of the narrative is extremely layered, the original story is being told in the past tense, as Merry is interviewed by a journalist, the possession itself then spawns a reality show when the family are forced to for money, this show becomes a cult hit, and another thread of the novel follows a blog, by a horror fan that follows the TV Show. With all these layers, the chance to offer critical commentary on horror is rife. One example is how on the TV show 'The Possession' re-enactments of various situations pre-TV show are given to the audience. These moments are all filmed in ways that resemble classic movies. In the horror blog posts, we see an analysis of these and the reference points the directors were in no doubt using.

It is this level of understand of horror that makes this novel one of Derek Quinlan's new favourites. Hearing all the references at once may prompt a viewer into thinking that this is simply just a long love letter to horror that doesn't feature its own scares or originality, but that couldn't be further from the truth. It does something very rare, it lovingly examines the horror in all forms, and looks back while using its own innovative narrative structure, suggesting a possible future for the genre.