I'd imagine it takes a lot to scare Stephen King. Not that horror writers are fearless. Far from it. I've found them to be - and they've told me that they are - some of the biggest scaredy cats on the planet. People often obsess over what bothers them, and horror writers are no different. But all that aside, and going on Mr. King's own words ("I'm pretty hard to scare") when Stephen King, the unrivaled sitting Monarch and Standard Bearer of Horror and someone who deals with spooks and frights on a second by second basis, declares in a Tweet that a book "scared the living hell" out of him, it's a really big deal. Like, a huge friggin' deal.
The book Mr. King was talking about - as you may have guessed by now, courtesy of the title of this piece and the huge cover image above - is A Head Full of Ghosts, written by Paul Tremblay, long a well-regarded and highly respected writer of horror, crime, and the bizarre, who broke into the big leagues with his latest novel, and threatens to rise even higher with his forthcoming book (Disappearance at Devil's Rock).
By all markers that count, A Head Full of Ghosts is a full-on critical darling and commercial hit, a Platinum Record in the horror genre that will live on in coming years on bookshelves, and - dark gods willing - on the silver screen. Like every writer, every book longs to be immortal, and A Head Full of Ghosts has already achieved immortality as an important work of contemporary horror fiction in the most unassuming way possible - by being fresh and well written, without resorting to cheap tricks and bugling. This is the solid stuff of horror, not the sordid stuff. This is shoulder blade material, on which others will gain strength, and someday perhaps stand to cast their view to new dark horizons. Freshly minted foundation literature of a genre that needs new bedrock bricks as the older ones show their age.
In A Head Full of Ghosts, Tremblay shows his admiration for horror fiction, and even his warm affection for it. But he also shows that he's not slavish in his regard. He treats it with the respect that it has earned, not handling it with kid gloves, nor treating it like a special needs genre that will stumble more than it achieves. He expects a lot, and he gets it. Must be the teacher in him. The father. The expert horror writer.
He also shows his love of pop culture, skewering it whilst having fun with the whole concept of instant media covering instant media. Blogs that now serve as our glowing newspaper replacements. Personalities with opinions rather than grizzled reporters. Reality shows becoming our own personal reality, in an age where it seems that everyone will star in their own show at least once in their life. In this case, exposing a strange and growing mystery that might be a demonic possession to the heated gazes of camera lens and insatiable television viewer more out of necessity than narcissism, which makes it all the more tragic when things start to go South. And boy do they ever...
In short, A Head Full of Ghosts is a post-irony exploration of the horror genre, social media, reality television voyeurism, and the inner workings of a seemingly normal, working class family that has fallen on hard times and harbors secrets from each other, and the world. Simple right? Tremblay makes it appear so, as he's just that deft of a writer.
But Tremblay is sly about it. He doesn't show his cards, nor shake his tail feathers. He's modest about what he has, what he's doing, giving a knowing grin rather than jumping up on the table and shouting about it. This is quiet, confident, seamless writing that allows the reader to corkscrew down into a story and remain there until the bitter, bitter end.
This is clear from the rather straight-forward set-up of the novel, which begins with a young woman, Merry Barrett, recounting the horrifying events of her childhood to an author interested in writing a tell-all expose about the supposed possession, and exorcism, of Merry's older sister Marjorie, an experience which was filmed by a camera crew and made into a reality television series titled "The Possession."
But through these flashbacks told from Merry's POV, juxtaposed with a episodic breakdown provided by snarky horror blogger Karen Brissette, the reasons behind the exorcism, and the invitation to the intrusive camera crew into the lives of the Barrett family, become more murky, and more difficult to either cheer on or discount, as each undertaking has the power of logic and reasonable desperation behind them. Even the smallest details and potential pitfalls are worked out ahead of time by Tremblay, making the supernatural or possibly unbelievable easily authentic, and layering each character and their motivations. Narrative is bent, and narrators are biased according to their own unique universes, often rendering unreliable what we assumed as fact.
What all of this melds into is a fascinating examination of personal motivation, selfishness, vanity, and the erosion of mental stability, layered within a classic horror story. A Head Full of Ghosts is all of these things, as well as a commentary on the supernatural, religion, the power of myth, and the sometimes watery nature of truth. And it's a hell of a thrill ride, with a gut punch ending. Just ask Stephen King. Poor fella hasn't slept right in months.
TC: From where did the initial germ of A Head Full of Ghosts: A Novel originate? Did its general plot and themes surprise you, or was it planned to deal with these elements all along?
PT: In February of 2013, I was spinning my tires, 100 pages into a novel that satirized the state of publishing through a boy obsessed with ending the world. The writing was very slow going but I was reading anything and everything I could get my hands on that might be related to apocalypse and end-of-world scenarios. I stumbled up a book of essays on the film The Exorcist. Bad Religion’s song “My Head Is Full of Ghosts” was ringing in my head too. It occurred to me then that there had been recent and successful literary updates of the zombie, vampire, and werewolf, but not many possession novels, even though Hollywood has continued to pump out the PG-13 exorcist-light fare.
I keep all these little notebooks around (and too often misplace) to jot down ideas, characters, and the like. I wrote “Horror Novel” at the top of page one in a notebook I hadn’t used yet. I imagined a family in dire financial trouble dealing with a maybe-possessed child, and that clicked with me. Soon after I had my two sisters, Merry and Marjorie and I knew the story would be ambiguous in its treatment of the supernatural (is she or is she not possessed?). I got lucky and the rest of the themes and structure were in place quickly too. I didn’t write a summary or outline, but before writing word one of the novel, I knew there would be an author interviewing Merry, a reality TV show, and a blog commenting on the action, and I knew what I wanted to happen to the family in end. All I had to figure out was how the me and the Langans Barretts would get there.
(In my first draft, the Barretts were the family Langan, with John and Sarah as parents. I changed the last name at the end figuring that would’ve been too much winky wink. And I was right.)
The reaction to the novel has been incredibly positive, and a joy to watch, for many reasons. Did you know at the time of either the start of the book or the finish that you had a legitimate hit on your hands?
Thank you, Ted.
I felt really good about the novel at the start. I mean, really good. No Sleep Till Wonderland had come out three years prior in 2010, and the sting of its lack of success and lack of publisher support (by lack, I mean less than goddamn nothing) for the book really shook my confidence as a writer. I didn’t feel good about myself, my writing, and was second guessing everything I did. But when I had the idea for AHFoG, I felt energized again and I knew as long as I didn’t get in my own way and muck it all up, I’d have a good novel.
That’s not to say I never doubted myself. Doesn’t matter if I’m writing a novel, short story, or an essay, there’s always a moment where I think the work is going terribly and the do-I-quit-or-keep-going? doubt/questions arise. For novels, it tends to happen around page 100. Also, my agent, after reading those first 100 pages of AHFoG was initially skeptical of the book’s POV and structure, which kind of threw me for a loop. But after a few days of self pity, I said screw it and forged on because I really believed in what I had and what it would be. To my agent’s credit, once he read the full final draft he said he was wrong and loved the book. It’s always okay to admit when you’re wrong, kids.
I had no idea if it would be a hit or even if it would sell (especially given my previous sales track record), but I believed in it. I really liked this book. Loved it, even. It was something that I would want to read. Ultimately, that’s my measuring stick. I can’t forecast the market well enough to make predictions about sales and the like; therein lies madness. The book was as close to being what I’d hoped it would be when I started, so I was pleased, and nervously excited about its possibilities.
What do you and Stephen King talk about when you take walks together?
There’s no talking allowed. He’s trying to teach me to communicate via telepathy. I worry though. Our walks are getting longer and longer.
With you being the father of a tween girl, was it difficult writing the more graphic scenes of possession involving Marjorie?
When I wrote the novel, my daughter was essentially Merry’s age (8 going on 9). I had her (and my son) as models for Merry. For Marjorie, I extrapolated, and I’ve been teaching teens for longer than I care to admit. My hope is that when my daughter is old enough to read it, she’ll identify and empathize with both sisters. I hope that people view Marjorie not as a monster/devil/demon, but as a compelling and sad character. I feel terrible for Marjorie. Whatever is happening to her is not her fault, and the adults attempting to intervene make it all worse.
In general, I find it’s always difficult to write graphic scenes because I want them to have an impact beyond the ick factor. That’s not easy to do, or do well. Hopefully those scenes work. Throughout the novel, I operated under the idea or mantra that the actions of the family members, of what they do to themselves and to each other would be described realistically and in great detail, and those scenes, the ones less likely to be supernaturally enhanced (shall we say), would be the most disturbing scenes in the novel.
Utilizing such zeitgeisty elements as reality television, blogs, and a bankrupt blue collar job market, what do you want to say with A Head Full of Ghosts? (if anything other than just wanting to tell a gripping tale)
I wanted to SAY ALL THE THINGS!!!! If I’m being obnoxious (which, let’s be honest, is most of the time), I describe the book as a secular, postmodern, feminist exorcism novel. The opportunity was there within the story for all sorts of commentary: how girls/women are often portrayed in possession stories, commentary on organized religion and its treatment of women, media and the information age and their cumulative effect on us, the disappearing blue collar class etc. Hopefully all of it becomes this monstrous mass crushing the Barretts, making everything worse, and the horror of the novel is witnessing what happens to them under all that if not familiar then frighteningly plausible pressure.
Any news on the cinematic front? Are you involved in the adaptation of the novel to a screenplay?
There are two screenwriters (Benjamin Davis Colllins and Luke Piotrowski) working the adaptation as we speak. I am not officially or contractually involved, but they’ve been great about keeping me in the loop and answering questions about the development process. Ben and Luke and the producers all are very excited and hopeful about the project. Go team!
In your forthcoming novel, Disappearance at Devil's Rock, you again center on the lives and consequences of teenagers, and the danger they can attract. What about that age group interests you as a writer of dark or horror fiction?
Who among us can’t remember how exciting, mystifying, and terrifying it was to be kid/teenager? Being that age is one of the few transformative, universal experiences we all share.
I think writing young characters is a strength of mine because I still feel like a confused teen most of the time. I’ve been a teacher most of my adult life and I have two kids of my own so I’ve either been a kid or been around kids, and I almost always have my summers off.
Unreliable narrators or confessions play a role in both books, as well. Is this a literary construct that you enjoy using and intentionally employed, or has it been intrinsically essential to both stories?
AHFoG had to be first person. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise. We needed to have Merry’s story be ambiguous because it was ambiguous for her. It had been changed and filtered by time, by media, by what other people told her, and by her own faulty memory. Plus, first person narrators are inherently unreliable. It’s a biased POV, and any first person account, if done well, takes advantage of that. I love me first person, yes I do.
DaDR is a third person limited novel with a little first person sprinkled in here and there. Instead of the unreliable narrator, we have a whole cast of unreliable characters. It’s about your friends and loved ones being unreliable. How can you possibly know what they’re thinking, what kind of decisions they will make, are they telling the truth, do they know if they’re telling the truth?
With A Head Full of Ghosts making such waves, has there been any early cross-media activity with Disappearance at Devil's Rock in terms of film or television?
No, nothing yet. It's still early. I only just sent the book to my film agent a few days ago. So, we'll see.
My son is planning on helping me film a little book trailer for DaDR, though. I think it’ll be good. Or unintentionally funny. Which would still be good.
How has working with major publishers differed from working primarily in small press? In your experience, how is horror fiction viewed in the larger publishing world, outside of closely knit genre fiction circles?
My first experience with major publishers wasn’t so hot. I had two wonderful editors for the Mark Genevich books, both of whom helped those books be the best books they could be from an editing standpoint, and I’m eternally grateful to them for that. But, without getting into too much woe-is-me detail, the support of the publisher overall just wasn’t there, particularly with the second book.
Working with Jennifer Brehl and William Morrow has been an absolute dream come true. Jen is an amazingly intelligent, insightful, and creative editor, one who always asks me the right questions with answers that have lead to the two best books I’ve written. The publicity and marketing team have been incredibly supportive, creative, and enthusiastic as well.
I’ve certainly enjoyed working with Brett and Sandra and Chizine Publications as well, and how much creative control they allow their authors. Their books are beautiful and original and I’m very proud to be in the CZP stable. I would certainly work with them again.
As far as how horror is viewed in the larger publishing world? I’m still trying to figure it out, to be honest. There seems to be more excitement and acceptance of it, particularly with readers. My experience is somewhat anecdotal, but I can’t tell you how many times I see an online reviewer who isn’t clued into the small press horror community talking about wanting to read more horror and they’re pleased to stumble across my book. Readers want the kind of stuff we (the royal we) want to read and write, it’s just a matter of getting those books into their hands. Here’s hoping that many more authors crossover from the smaller presses to the larger ones. I want all of you (the royal you) talented folks to have access to more readers. This includes you, Ted, my handsome doppelganger….
Okay, now The Cosmicmicon is blushing, which isn't easy for a non corporeal cyberspace presence... Now fully recovered, we'd like to ask what's next for you? What are your short- and long-term goals now that you've taken that next step in your writing career?
Survive the school year gauntlet of January and February. I owe some editors a few short stories, so those need to be written. Both part of my short term and long term goals: I plan on pitching a couple of books to my publisher very soon. If they go for it, then well, I’ll be busy in the short term and long term. Happily so.
Thanks so much, Paul. We very much appreciate you taking the time to hang out at The Cosmicomion, and wish you boundless success in your future endeavors.
Thank you, Ted!