A Head Full of Ghosts in a Very Busy Room

Cover of Paul Tremblay's a head full of ghostsLast week I finished reading Paul Tremblay‘s A Head Full of Ghosts [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads]. Early praise for it was very good, and the reputation it has grown even in a year is suggestive of a book of quality. The subtlety of it can’t be emphasized enough, partly because the book grapples head-on with The Exorcist, reality TV culture, metafiction, and the epistolary tradition. It is, to put it mildly, an ambitious book, and all the more so because it’s not a doorstopper. I love a short novel, and this one is a well-made UFC fighter of a book, rangy and able to use a bunch of different strikes, chokes, locks, and kicks to do its thing.  And all the while that it is doing those things, it is building with repetition, diction, and well-chosen details a subtle atmosphere of dread that is still with me, even now.

As it also turns out, I’m very glad I waited to read it. The Venn diagram of horror, literary horror, weird fiction, dark fiction, and literary-fiction-that-is-dark is larger than ever these day. Once upon a time, there was only so much of it in any given year. In a thread over on a publisher’s Facebook page the other day, the roll call of what’s coming out this year—in short fiction collections alone—was formidable in length, something like 25 books. Add another 25 novels or standalone novellas, and it’s past the number of books I generally read in a year, and that’s before even getting to the recent surge in weird/literary chapbooks.

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing a talk from Kelly Link at the University of Richmond, “A Vampire Is a Flexible Metaphor,” which covers some of the same territory as a 2013 interview with the author. Link is a living master of fantastic short fiction, so it was instructive to hear her talk at some length about the authors she has read and currently reads, and about the importance of returning to deep wells. To focus on fiction from 1960 or 1910 necessarily means that you won’t read all of the exciting books of 2016, but Link’s enduring passion for authors like Joan Aiken, Shirley Jackson, etc. is clear and instructive, even as she spoke lyrically about the strength of a number of authors writing today.

All of that to say, I think that A Head Full of Ghosts is a standout novel and worth reading. I felt something moving inside me as I turned the pages, perhaps the kind of unrest that will ultimately lead to deeper reflection, and that alone would make me want to tell other readers about it, even if it weren’t a pleasure to read. So, you know, go check out A Head Full of Ghosts, and see if you wind up with something unexpected taking hold of you as well.


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