SPECIAL NOTE: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay is one of six books included in this month’s Creepy Crate. Order by April 10 to get one of these books, plus a selection of spooky, exclusive items.
Paul Tremblay hit the horror scene big-time with 2015’s A Head Full of Ghosts. Though not his first work, the terrifying possession story made Tremblay’s name. With its clever approach of nodding at the masters of horror while simultaneously taking ownership of a common trope, the novel quickly became one of the genre’s most recommended tales.
A Head Full of Ghosts follows the Barrett family as they begin to realize that elder daughter, Marjorie, is possessed by an inexplicable force. The story is told in multiple threads, primarily by younger daughter, Merry, both as an eight-year-old observing her sister’s downward trend and as a 23-year-old looking back on her experience. Eventually, the girl’s religious father enlists their preacher to exorcise Marjorie–and enlists a reality TV producer to film it all.
This twisty, terrifying tale will keep you guessing and force you to keep the lights on well after you’re done reading.
Read on for an excerpt of A Head Full of Ghosts, which you may receive in this month’s Creepy Crate.
“Mom, what’s your problem?” I said, talking and acting like Depp’s version of Wonka: vacant smile, creepy voice full of air and lisp and nothing else.
Dad said, “That’s pretty good. I have to admit, you’re good at doing voices, Merry.”
Both Mom and Marjorie groaned.
“Yes, you’ve always been great at doing impressions and funny little voices.”
I changed my pitch and tone with each word. “I can do voices.” “Just great. She’ll be doing voices all night now,” Marjorie said.
“I can do voices!”
Mom said, “You have no idea what you started, do you?”
I cackled in two or three different styles, then stopped abruptly. “Oh, Mom! I almost forgot. Tomorrow is hat day in school. I need to find a hat! What hat should I wear?”
“I don’t know. We’ll look for a hat after dinner.”
Dad said, “Hey, you can wear my Red Sox hat.”
“Gross, no way!” I instinctively covered my head with my hands.
Legend foretold of a hat that was older than Marjorie and had never been washed. The once-white sweatband ringing the inside of his hat was black. The red B was all grimy-looking and the bill was sweat-stained and misshapen. Dad used to chase us around with the hat, trying to put it on our heads. We’d run away laughing and screaming. The game had usually ended when I’d whine and complain that he was chasing Marjorie more than he was chasing me. It was true, but to be fair, Marjorie was more fun to chase because she was harder to catch. Even though I was fast, I’d give up and stop running, drop to the ground, and roll into a ball. Dad would quickly put the hat on my head, but in two seconds he’d be off again, playfully shouting and chasing after Marjorie. Her taunts were always so clever, and if he caught her, she’d get it worse; he’d rub the hat all over her head and face until her repeated Dad stop it sounded angry. Sitting at the kitchen table that night, those hat chases seemed like they’d happened eons ago although the last time we’d done it was only a few months prior at a Labor Day barbecue. During that chase Dad had knocked over a small folding table, spilling paper plates and plastic utensils.
Mom said, “We don’t want the school to send her home for lice, John.” It was supposed to be a joke but it had an edge to it.
I said, “I want to wear something funny and cool. Marjorie, could I wear your sparkly baseball hat?”
The three of us looked at Marjorie.
Now I remember thinking that her answer could change everything back to the way it was; Dad could find a job and stop praying all the time and Mom could be happy and call Marjorie shellfish again and show us funny videos she found on YouTube, and we all could eat more than just spaghetti at dinner and, most important, Marjorie could be normal again. Everything would be okay if Marjorie would only say yes to me wearing the sparkly sequined baseball hat, the one she’d made in art class a few years ago.
The longer we watched Marjorie and waited for a response, the more the temperature in the room dropped and I knew that nothing would ever be the same again.
She stopped twisting her spaghetti around her fingers. She opened her mouth, and vomit slowly oozed out onto her spaghetti plate.
Mom: “Honey, are you okay?” She jumped out of her seat and went over to Marjorie, stood behind her, and held her hair up.
Marjorie didn’t react to either parent, and she didn’t make any sounds. She wasn’t retching or convulsing involuntarily like one normally does when throwing up. It just poured out of her as though her mouth was an opened faucet. The vomit was as green as spring grass, and the masticated pasta looked weirdly dry, with a consistency of mashed-up dog food.
She watched Dad the whole time as the vomit filled her plate, some of it slopping over the edges and onto the table. When she finished she wiped her mouth on her sleeve. “No, Merry. You can’t wear my hat.” She didn’t sound like herself. Her voice was lower, adult, and growly. “You might get something on it. I don’t want you to mess it up.” She laughed.
Dad: “Marjorie . . .”
Marjorie coughed and vomited more onto her too-full plate. “You can’t wear the hat because you’re going to die someday.” She found a new voice, this one a treacly baby-talk. “I don’t want dead things wearing my very special hat.”
Mom backed away from Marjorie and bumped into my chair. I reached out and clung to her hip with my right arm and covered my mouth with my left.
A third new voice; genderless and nasally. “No one here can wear it because you’re all going to die.”
“Marjorie?” Dad stayed in his seat and held out a hand to her. “Marjorie? Look at me. Hold my hand and pray with me. Please. Just try it.”
Mom was crying and shaking her head.
“You can’t wear the hat because you’re going to die someday.” She found a new voice, this one a treacly baby-talk. “I don’t want dead things wearing my very special hat.”
Convinced that he was only going to make it all worse, I squeaked out, “Leave her alone,” then covered my mouth back up quickly because it wasn’t safe to talk.
He said in his most patient voice, which seemed to be not his voice at all, as alien as the voices coming from my sister: “Marjorie is never alone. He is always with her. Let us pray to Him.” And I started crying too because I was afraid and confused. I thought that Dad was saying there was someone inside Marjorie and that he wanted to pray to him. Dad pushed back his chair and knelt on the floor.
“Okay, Dad.” Marjorie slid out of her chair, leaking down toward the floor, and disappeared under the table.
Mom left me and bent down, next to Marjorie’s chair. “Sweetie, come out from under there. I’ll run you a nice warm bath upstairs, okay? Let’s go to bed early. You’ll feel better...” She kept cooing promises of hope and healing.
Now I was alone, with my hand still over my mouth. Marjorie slunk and slid on the hardwood somewhere in the depths beneath the table. I could not see her and pulled my dangling feet up onto the chair. My toes curled inside the sneakers.
We waited and watched. Dad suddenly jolted as if given an electric shock and knocked into the table, shaking our plates and forks, and spilling more vomit off of Marjorie’s plate, which smelled of acid and dirt.
Marjorie’s hand reached up. Her skin was ash gray and her dirty fingernails were as black as sh eyes. Then her muddy voice echoed up from the bottom of a well. “Go ahead, Dad. Take my hand.”
He slowly reached out and did as she asked. She pulled his hand beneath the table, to where we couldn’t see. Dad was a statue bust, as cold and white as marble. He started a prayer. “In the name of Your son, Jesus Christ, please, Lord, give Marjorie strength. . . .” He paused and seemed unsure of what exactly to say, as though he knew he was an amateur, a poseur. A fraud. “ . . . to help her deal with—with the affliction she’s struggling with. Cleanse her spirit. Show her the—” Then he screamed in pain.
The table rattled again as he pulled his arm out from under the table. The back of his hand was bleeding, had been slashed open. There were two deep red lines dowsing a path toward his wrist. He clutched the hand to his chest instinctively, then held it out toward Mom, in an expression of childlike fear and incredulity at the unfairness of it all.
Mom: “Did she scratch you? Bite you?”
“Maybe. I—I don’t know.”
I scooted back in my chair, convinced that Marjorie would come for me next and drag me down beneath the surface and into the shadows, pry my mouth open for its pink wriggling worm.
Marjorie hummed her terrible song and crawled away from the table. Her hood was covering her hair. She stopped humming and spouted gibberish that I tried to spell inside my head, but it was made out of nothing but angry consonants.
My parents both said her name, saying it like her name was a question, and a call, and a plea.
Marjorie slowly crawled away from the light of the kitchen and into the dark of the dining room. “I don’t bite or scratch,” she said in another voice, a new one, one that didn’t sound like anyone who had ever spoken before in the human history of speech. “He scraped the back of his hand on the rusty metal and bolts under the old table.” She slipped into more of the consonant-speak, and then added, “We always hurt ourselves, don’t we? I’m going to my room. No visitors, please.”
Marjorie hummed the song again, changing pitch and timbre so quickly and abruptly it was disorienting and it felt like my ears were popping. She crawled through the dining room, moving like a monitor lizard or something as equally ancient, and into the front foyer and to the stairs.
She said from far away, “I can do voices too, Merry.”
A Head Full of Ghosts will be included in the April/May Creepy Crate. Originally published in 2015, the novel won the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association. It was optioned by Focus Features, and a film written and directed by Oz Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House) is in the works.
Tremblay is also the author of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and 2018’s The Cabin at the End of the World, which has also been optioned for a film. Tremblay’s work has garnered high praise from a variety of critics, including iconic horror writer Stephen King. King said that A Head Full of Ghosts “scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.” With such high praise, it’s easy to see why A Head Full of Ghosts has become so iconic in four short years.
Featured photo: Rikki Austin / Unsplash