PrintE-mail Written by Ian White

Meredith’s sister Marjorie is possessed. Their father, who was recently laid off from work and has since discovered a fairly intense interest in the Church, has brought in his friend Father Wanderly to help. However, the girl’s mother isn’t convinced this is the right step to take. Marjorie has told Merry that she’s only faking it, but Merry is still scared: Marjorie’s bedtime stories have become increasingly nasty and she apparently comes into Merry’s room while she sleeps, holding Merry’s nose closed until she can’t breathe. And the cardboard playhouse in the middle of Merry’s bedroom, which used to be her refuge, has become something ominous.

When a TV crew arrives to make a reality series about The Possession, it’s the answer to the family’s money troubles, but it brings even more problems. Marjorie has already warned that if the televised exorcism goes ahead, something very bad will happen. And what did eventually happen has pursed Merry into adulthood. Now she is relating her story to an author, and the secret that she’s held inside for so many years – the awful truth about everything – is ready to burst out of her.

Stephen King is quoted on the cover of A Head Full of Ghosts saying it “scared the living hell out of me.” It didn’t have quite that impact on us but it is a terrific story and so finely crafted that, even at the end, we’re still not sure what really happened. Paul Tremblay is a clever writer. He knows how closely his novel flirts with pastiche, so one of the first things he does is name-check The Exorcist and admit (via Merry) that we’ve already seen a lot of what’s about to happen in the movies – but wouldn’t that be even more proof that Marjorie’s possession is bogus? It’s a neat trick and yet, as in most great supernatural tales, it’s the psychological undercurrent between the four main characters, especially the dynamic between the mother and father whose marriage is obviously close to total collapse, which really keeps the reader hooked.

There’s very little gore, and no gratuitous terror. This is a slow-burn gothic that leads you gently into the shadows and then leaves you suddenly alone in the pitch darkness. Two or three of the moments are especially effective, particularly a scene involving Merry’s cardboard house and an unsettling encounter between the two sisters in a dank basement.

The final twist is realistic and tragic, and leaves us with plenty of room for thought. If you want to look for a supernatural explanation, it’s here. If you want an explanation which is much more down-to-earth, but no less unsettling, it’s here too. In fact, as a paranormal horror that might not even be about the paranormal, it’s pretty genius.

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