“The next Gone Girl!!!”
This breathless promise found in countless book blurbs over the last few years has largely been an empty one. Any female-penned, dark-ish twisty mystery/thriller can find someone willing to compare it to Gillian Flynn’s runaway best-seller. This year, one finally lived up to the hype, at least in terms of sales. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train hit shelves with “the next Gone Girl” buzz and surpassed the eight weeks at the top of the N.Y. Times hardcover fiction bestsellers list that Flynn’s book notched.
But I’d argue that The Girl on the Train compares to Gone Girl only in the most superficial ways. Both books were fun and twisty and were told from multiple characters’ perspectives, which were unreliable to varying degrees.
What made Gone Girl stand out, however, was its unique point of view. Flynn tapped into a particular vein of narcissism in the culture—everyone deserves to be a star and our mediated culture requires an endless supply of new ones to serve up to a hungry populace. Instead of putting the reader outside the story, at a safe distance from which we could sit in judgment, Flynn (to misappropriate Sheryl Sandberg) leans in to Nick and Amy Dunne’s awfulness and makes us participate, even revel, in their nastiness. The hyper-reality Flynn creates makes relatability possible even when we actively reject identifying with either of the ghastly leads. We’re secretly thrilled by Amy’s awful genius even as we pity the hapless and contemptible man-boy Nick. This tension gives Gone Girl its special pop.
The Girl on the Train was fun. It was no Gone Girl.
On Tuesday, my personal vote for “next Gone Girl” hit shelves. Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, however, in no way evokes Gone Girl. At least not on a superficial level.
While my bookselling comrades may or may not agree with my comparisons to Gone Girl, they will agree on Ghost‘s merits. When we received the galleys in February, this one spread like a rumor, like poison ivy, like 17th century hysteria. The converted didn’t share recommendations, we begged and issued ultimatums.
A Head Full of Ghosts is a story about 14-year old Marjorie Barrett who is either emotionally troubled or possessed by a demonic spirit. At the end of their rope, both emotionally and financially, the Barretts agree to have TLC film a reality show about their daughter’s possession and exorcism.
An incisive, thoroughly of-the-moment psychological horror story, A Head Full of Ghosts is creepy, high-wire suspense, as well as trenchant social critique. Is Marjorie schizophrenic, possessed by an evil spirit, or simply a deviously manipulative and troubled adolescent? The pervasive miasma of dread that hangs over A Head Full of Ghosts is pierced by well-crafted (and well-timed) jolts, as well as the pointed observations and (often) unintended humor of Tremblay’s remarkably well-drawn and fully-fleshed narrator, Merry Barrett, the troubled Marjorie’s little sister.
While horror fans should love A Head Full of Ghosts, it is so much more than another genre entry.
Like Flynn, Paul Tremblay delivers a twisty, jolting funride born from a definite, coherent point of view. Ghosts has something resonant to say about our current culture. Perhaps the only thing scarier than the horrors Tremblay conjures are people immune to or unable to see the real horrors served up.
Embrace or ignore the “horror” designation, just don’t let it keep you away. A Head Full of Ghosts is so, so smart and about the most fun read I’ve come across in a while…probably since I read Gone Girl.