On Monday, June 1, at 7p.m. author Paul Tremblay will be appearing at the Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street, to talk about “A Head Full of Ghosts” with Jack Haringa.

Tremblay’s modern horror/thriller novel (currently in development for a movie by Focus Features, with Robert Downey Jr.’s Team Downey and Dan Dubiecki’s Allegiance Theater producing) features the Barretts, a family teetering on the edge of a middle class existence after Steve Barrett loses his factory job.Younger daughter Merry Barrett, 8, is unfazed by her parents troubles; she’s busy creating stories with her 14 year-old sister Marjorie—innocuous tales of cats in cars getting their wheels stuck in molasses.

Then Marjorie starts telling Merry new stories, and these stories aren’t nearly as entertaining or innocent. They are dark, twisted, and threatening. Marjorie leaves Merry a cryptic note with the revelation that she’s been sneaking in Merry’s room at night while Merry’s asleep and pinching her nose until she gasps for air. And that’s just the beginning of the menace that’s about to be unleashed as it becomes more apparent that Marjorie is possessed. Or is she?

I asked Paul Tremblay about his horror influences, the relevancy of the film “The Exorcist” today, and how it felt to write from the point of view of an 8-year-old girl.

Brookline Hub: “A Head Full of Ghosts” pays homage to classic horror and possession movies and books, most notably the original film version of “The Exorcist.” With “A Head Full of Ghosts” was your intention to write a modern take on that 70s classic or something else?

Paul Tremblay: Writing a contemporary update or take on possession stories and “The Exorcist” in particular was part of what I wanted to do. Very few possession stories (especially within the Hollywood tradition) take a skeptical approach toward the supernatural, so I set out to write what I was obnoxiously calling a postmodern, secular, exorcism novel. At the same time, I wanted to have fun and roll around in as many of the book’s influences and precursors as possible and use that to help build the dread and sense of unease and uncertainty within the novel.

AHeadFullofGhostsBH: “A Head Full of Ghosts” is primarily told through the eyes of 8-year-old Merry Barrett. Did you find it challenging writing from the perspective of a young girl? How did you approach it?

PT: It was definitely a challenge. I hope this doesn’t sound trite or goofy but I see myself as a kid who’s never grown up. I’m not sure who first said that when you grow up you learn there are no adults, but it rings very true with me. I vividly remember the confusion I felt as a child whenever confronted by situations or behaviors I didn’t understand and I remember then always wanting or demanding to know the why and how and what. As a child we believe there are answers to those questions and as an adult we learn that if there are any answers at all, they’re vague and/or incredibly nuanced and complex.

I wanted a first person account from an observer and not the one who was schizophrenic or possessed. And I wanted a narrator who would be extra-unreliable (as first person is already inherently unreliable). I started by adding filters to make the 8-year-old Merry Barrett both more accessible and more mysterious. I filtered her through the lens of adult-Merry remembering what it was like to be 8 years old, and I also had the filter of the three blog posts that (somewhat) objectively breakdown what happens on the reality show in which Merry and her sister Marjorie star.

My biggest help with Merry was my own daughter. She was around the same age when I was writing the novel. I riffed on many of the things she said and did that were funny and often spectacularly outlandish. I hope part of what makes the novel successful is there’s an authenticity to the joy of Merry being Merry, and one of the horrors of the novel is born from that joy constantly being broken down and undermined by the events that ultimately disintegrate her relationship with her sister Marjorie.

BH: In the novel, horror blogger Karen Brissette notes how kids today aren’t afraid of classic horror movies like “The Exorcist.” Is the horror genre dead in the water, replaced by either extreme blood and guts movies like the “Saw” and “Hostel” series, or psychological thrillers like “Gone Girl?”

PT: If you’d asked me that question ten years ago I would’ve answer No, but I’m worried…. But, great news, the horror genre is definitely not dead in the water. In fact, I think we’re in the middle of a golden age, particularly when it comes to the literary side with writers like Kelly Link, Laird Barron, John Langan, Victor LaValle, Livia Llewellyn and so many more doing great work within the genre.

Movie-wise, I think it’s natural for kids to deride older movies but my own anecdotal experience with high school students has been the opposite. Kids routinely tell me that classics like “The Exorcist” are still among the scariest movies they’ve ever seen. Then I tell them to watch John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” And then…

Anyway, there’s also been a definite movement away from crappy torture-porn flicks of the last decade to more supernatural/psychological scares. “Paranormal Activity”, “Insidious”, and “The Conjuring” were wildly successful financially. That’s not to say those movies are great, mind you (I really dug the first PA, the others, eh…) Indies like “The Babadook” and “Lake Mungo” and “Kill List” are better examples of smart, disturbing, contemporary horror films. Still, supernatural/psychological horror has certainly become viable in the eyes of Hollywood again. Fingers crossed it continues…(he says because “A Head Full of Ghosts” was optioned by Focus…yeah, I did just drop that in here:)

BH: Throughout the book, readers are led to believe one thing and then are surprised to learn that their assumptions were wrong. We are never entirely sure if Marjorie Barrett is possessed by a demon, suffering from a severe mental illness, or just a teenager affected by her parents troubled marriage and desperately trying to get attention. Is there a right answer or is the truth open to interpretation?

PT: Yes and no? I know, the lamest answer ever. I really wanted readers to be able to build their own cases and decide for themselves what was going on with Marjorie. I tried to stack the decks of supernatural-explanation and rational-explanation so that both are the same height throughout the novel. It’s that uncertainly that is a big part of the horror and dread, I hope. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it with my two-bit opinion on what the truth is. Merry tells you what it is if you listen closely.

BH: What is your all-time favorite horror movie? What about your favorite scary novel or short story? Like Merry Barrett, do you have an extensive horror collection and did you watch a marathon of possession movies before and during the writing of this book?

PT: I have so many favorites. I already mentioned a few. “Jaws” messed me up the most as a kid (I had shark nightmares for decades.) My all time favorite would have to be Carpenter’s “The Thing,” but the Australian movie “Lake Mungo” (so quiet and subtle and moving) is a recent obsession. I own two DVD copies of “Mungo”; one for viewing, one for lending/proselytizing.

Favorite novel or short story? Again, so hard to choose just one. A quick list, with some of these having been given big nods or winks in my novel: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle”, Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves”, Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?”, and Clive Barker’s short story “In the Hills, the Cities.”

I do have an extensive library of books and movies. Despite being a scaredy-cat prone to nightmares and run-for-my-life sprints up dark basement stairs, I did watch and read a bunch of possession and horror stories while writing the book. To me that’s the fun part of being a writer; welcoming the influences into your story, having that conversation with other stories and their tellers.

BH: In “A Head Full of Ghosts” and through Karen Brissette’s blog, you skew the unreality of reality TV. But just like with reality TV, readers wonder how much of what is happening to the “real” Barrett family is true and how much is made up. Why did you choose to put a reality show at the center of your novel?

PT: In a book that is in some ways about being possessed by pop culture, what’s more trashy pop culture than reality TV? Thematically, it goes along with what you described. It added another filter, another layer, more questioning of what is real or what is not real. That the Barretts are the subject of a reality TV show is itself a horror. How they got to such a desperate place where’d they’d allow the deterioration and exploitation of their daughter to be filmed and have it be a financial and spiritual salvation, and what actually being on the show does to all of them is horrific.

I wanted to contrast the irreality of the TV show with the ultimate tragedy of what happens to the family when the cameras are off.

BH: Your biography says you have a master’s degree in mathematics. What led you to fiction writing?

PT: I’m not sure and, simultaneously, it’s a long story.

Short-ish version: I took my first English course (an elective) as a second semester senior and in it I read “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” That story hit me like a punch. I didn’t know that people wrote stuff like that. Around the same time, Lisa (my wife now, then my girlfriend) made me read Stephen King’s “The Stand,” which I loved. For the next two years in graduate school (University of Vermont, in beautiful Burlington), I read all the King I could, and moved on to Peter Straub, Clive Barker, more Joyce Carol Oates, and Shirley Jackson, Kurt Vonnegut, and I branched out from there.

At the same time I had taught myself how to play guitar and I wanted to be Bob Mould of Husker Du, or a reasonable facsimile. I wrote some songs. They weren’t very good. So I tried writing fiction instead and I found I was marginally better at that, so I put down the guitar and stuck with the writing until I was better than marginally better. And here I am X many years later! (X is a math thing we learn when we get our master’s degree…or it’s me not willing to admit how many years ago that all was…)

BH: You live in Greater Boston with your family. What do you like best about living here?

PT: The weather. Bahahahaha… No, seriously, I do like the change of seasons, the rhythm of the year. I’m a hopeless New Englander and I’m fortunate to live so close to family and friends. That’s really the best part.

Or I could tell you that having lots of old houses and creepy woods around helps too!

BH: Have you ever witnessed an actual exorcism? If given the chance, would you?

PT: I have not. I don’t think I would want to watch. I don’t believe in supernatural possession and I don’t like watching people suffer.

But. If it was a TV broadcast of a purportedly true exorcism? Maybe I’d watch. Maybe. Because then I could snark from the safety of my couch. With the lights on.

–Interview by Jennifer Campaniolo