When Stephen King tweets out that a book scared him, it immediately rockets to the top of my to-be-read pile. I love a good scare — and Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts is just that.
The Barrett family seem like the typical, all-American family. That is until their fourteen year-old-daughter begins exhibiting signs of a potential possession. As questions of whether or not this is a mental-illness or a possession by a demon begin to mount, the family resorts to desperate measures — not only conducting an exorcism but also allowing cameras into the house to record the events leading up to it and the exorcism itself.
The only survivor of these events is Merry, who years later reflects on the events and her role in them with a series of interviews.
From the beginning, we know there is some horrible secret hanging over the Barrett family. And Tremblay builds a palpable sense of dread as the story continues to unfold, all the while making us question the nature of reality — from reality television shows that are edited to tell the best story to just what exactly is going on with the Barrett family. There were times that the sense of dread at what was going to happen on the next page reminded me of my first reading of Stephen King’s Cujo in my teenage years.
And yet for all the building dread and horror, A Head Full of Ghosts is keenly aware of its place within the horror pantheon. Referencing multiple horror movies and tropes, the novel breaks them down and builds them up again to give the reader a bit of gallows humor all while ratcheting the feeling of dread up a few points higher.
It all leads to a final act that is among the more memorable and unsettling I’ve read in quite a while. I can see why this novel scared Stephen King because it certainly left me feeling scared and unsettled.
And yet it’s a book that I wholeheartedly recommend — as long as you’re not faint of heart. It’s compelling, horrifying and utterly readable. Simply put — one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
One of things you have to admire about Stephen King is how he is willing to keep pushing the boundaries of the publishing world. He’s not just content to churn out best-seller after best-seller in hard-cover format, but instead he’s willing to take a chance or two along the way to challenge not only himself but his readers. Some of them work very well (The Green Mile) and some have withered on the vine (The Vine).
King has also been releasing stories via audiobooks for the past dozen or so years and every once in a while he puts out an exclusive audio only story. (King has admitted he’s a an audio reader himself). Sometimes it’s a fairly straight-forward short story and then other times it’s something like Drunken Fireworks.
And while the story will be part of his upcoming short story collection, King said in an interview that this one was meant to be listened to.
It certainly shows.
Thanks to an insurance and lottery windfall, Alden McCausland and his mother spend the warmest months of the year at their three-room cabin on Lake Abenaki. One fourth of July, Alden and his mother light up a few sparklers and other fireworks, setting off an inadvertent contest with their neighbors across the lake, the Massimos. Each summer, Alden tries to find the next big thing to shoot off, only to have the Massimo family ready to counter them with something just a bit better. It would all be in good fun for the two families if Alden and his mother didn’t feel like one member of their family was taunting them with his trumpet. Continue reading
Outside of his Dark Tower novels, Stephen King isn’t really a writer who offers readers out and out sequels to previous works. Yes, he built up his fictional towns and connected elements from some of the novels together in a way that rewarded his Constant Readers, but there weren’t many novels that picked up on the characters or events from previous installments.
Until the last five or so years when King has shown an interest in playing again in some of his own fictional sandboxes. Last year we got a sequel to The Shining which while not as great as the original was a solid, entertaining book. Now King visits the world of Bill Hodges again with the middle novel of a trilogy about those characters with Finders Keepers.
And yet for a sequel to last year’s Mr. Mercedes, King keeps Hodges and company off stage for the first half of Finders Keepers. Instead, King gives us several new characters, all connected by their love of the best-selling author (and perhaps literary) genius of John Rothstein.
Morris Bellamy loves the work of Rothstein — well, at least his first two novels. Feeling betrayed by the choices made for Rothstein’s lead character of Morris Gold and certain the reclusive author has written more, Bellamy breaks into Rothstein’s house, stealing some money and notebooks that contain a couple of short stories and two new novels. Bellamy also murders Rothstein, throwing a monkey wrench into his plan to read and then sell the notebooks to a wealthy investor through his library/book collector friend. Bellamy is eventually caught on other charges and sent to jail, but not before he buries the money and notebooks in the woods in a secure location, just waiting for the day he can be released from prison and get his grubby mitts back on them. Continue reading
What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?
I vividly recall reading Stephen King’s Cujo as a teenager and being utterly riveted and unnerved by it, especially the last third of the novel when two of our heroes are trapped in a car with the rabid Cujo outside, trying desperately to get at them. King created such a palate in my mind that I’ve never gone anywhere near the movie version of the book. One reason is that I am not sure it could EVER be as terrifying and unnerving as the novel was. And the other reason is that I’m worried that it MIGHT somehow be as terrifying and unnerving as the novel was.
I few years ago, I wondered if and how the novel would hold up for scaring me. So, I checked out the audio book from my local library and listened to it. (Review here, if you’re interested) Twenty years later, it still had the same impact on me.
King has written a lot of other scary and unnerving books, but it’s this one that really got under my skin the most.