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The Scariest Part: Paul Tremblay Talks About A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS


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This week on The Scariest Part, I have the distinct pleasure of hosting my good friend Paul Tremblay, whose latest novel is A Head Full of Ghosts. I’ve known Paul for probably two decades now, and I’ve always been in awe of his writing skills. For all the amazing short stories and novels he’s already written, though, A Head Full of Ghosts might be his best yet. But don’t take my word for it. If you like what he has to say here, check out the book for yourself. I think you’ll agree it’s one of the best of the year. Here’s the publisher’s description:

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.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Paul Tremblay:

I tried to construct A Head Full of Ghosts so that reasonable minds could disagree as to whether there was something supernatural going on or the events of the novel could be explained rationally. And, was it an either-or type of situation with no crossover, or was it more like a you-got-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate deal? I don’t know if I’m making sense, but I’m sad that my house is already empty of Halloween candy…

Anyway, for so many horror stories, the scariest part is the idea that reality isn’t necessarily as rational or as real as we think it is. That there’s slippage. And that slippage or liminal space is impossible to define, which makes it even more frightening. This idea of reality or the real story existing within the cracks of things is a big reason why I used as many pop cultural references as I could in the novel. I wanted to put the reader on initially sure, familiar footing, and then slowly undermine it all, bring everything into question, to continually having the reader wondering or asking what was real and what wasn’t. Scarier still is that we and our friends and our loved ones get stuck or trapped in those cracks. And then what the hell are we supposed to do then, right?

That all said, I think Merry gives my thesis statement (does a novel have a thesis statement? Work with me…) almost halfway through the novel when she says, “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?” Horror that truly terrifies, disturbs, and moves the reader isn’t ultimately about wanting to watch people suffer. Horror at its best is about our human inclination toward empathy, about wanting to and needing to understand why people do the horrible things they do and/or how we survive it, and having the courage to not look away. For me, the most horrific scenes/parts of the novel, the scenes that are most vivid in my own head, are the ones that are the least likely candidates to have a potential supernatural element intruding. These are the scenes of the family falling to pieces under the mounting pressures from all manner of outside forces and from their own bad decisions and personal failures.

There are two scenes in the novel that are the scariest parts of the book for me. One scene is at the end, post-attempted exorcism, and I don’t want to spoil it. The other scene hits at page 55. Merry just finished listening to her parents arguing and goes upstairs to find her older sister Marjorie sitting in the sunroom. Their fun conversation quickly dissolves into Marjorie matter-of-factly threatening to rip out Merry’s tongue. It’s when Merry (and the reader, I hope) realizes that she’s no longer safe in the company of her beloved sister (or her parents for that matter) and she doesn’t know what she or anyone else can do, or if there is anything they can do to help her sister. It’s when she realizes that the devil you know is not always better than the devil you don’t know.

Paul Tremblay: Website / Facebook / Twitter

A Head Full of Ghosts: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

Paul Tremblay is the author of A Head Full of Ghosts, The Little Sleep, No Sleep Till Wonderland, In the Mean Time, and the forthcoming (June 2016) novel Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. He is a member of the board of directors of the Shirley Jackson Awards, and his essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and numerous “year’s best” anthologies. He has a master’s degree in mathematics and lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two children. He hates pickles.

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