A novel about the quirks of modern adulthood, but also a creepy haunted house tale.
If Henry James and Shirley Jackson had somehow had prescient knowledge of the 2008 real estate bubble and Xennial relationships, The Turn of the Screw or The Haunting of Hill House might have turned out looking something like Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It. Though her prose is fresh, Jemc takes a classic approach to the building of her horrific tale, and the result is a creepy yarn that pays homage to its famous forebears without feeling nostalgic or archaic.
The Grip of It tells the story of James and Julie, a young couple who buy a Victorian home in a small town in order to reset their relationship after James’s gambling addiction comes to light. The gambling is less of an issue than his lying to cover it up, and that deception opens just enough of a crack in their relationship for doubt to slip in. Jemc uses this doubt as one of the primary tools for constructing the novel, as the couple’s failure to share feelings with one another makes them hesitant to reveal their suspicions that something isn’t quite right about their new home. At one point, Julie narrates, “I think James is curious for not being more curious, but then I wonder, ‘What if he’s doing the same thing? What if he’s hiding his interest and confusion and unease for fear that I’ll want to leave? Perhaps he’s afraid of returning to the city, to old habits and temptations.’” These considerations by both protagonists (the book is mostly told in first-person POV, alternating between the two of them) are what set The Grip of It apart. Gone are those frustrations that so often accompany the horror genre: the “why didn’t he just tell her that the walls are bleeding?!” questions that make readers give up on the intelligence of the characters and the generosity of the creator.
Instead, Jemc allows us to enter James and Julie’s experiences, which she does by manipulating their bodies, their interactions and even the style in which they narrate the story. This invites the reader into the horror of what is unfolding, and instead of the haunted house being a cliché, it feels like immersive theater. This is enhanced by Jemc’s commitment to making Julie and James’s suffering a multi-sensory experience. She chooses an annoying and strangely perverse sound, a humming that sounds like moaning, as the house’s initial act of aggression. From there, they are startled, bruised, repelled, entranced and attacked by whatever it is that afflicts them. And though The Grip of It always feels aware of what it is, it doesn’t go so meta that it diminishes the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. When detectives appear or the neighbor acts weird, it serves as homage rather than sabotage.
Though the near-constant tension and the deepening mystery of the experience is more than enough to recommend it, The Grip of It’s finest asset may be the strength of Jemc’s prose, which is lovely and often almost musical without ever falling into showmanship or smartypantsery. At one point, Julie describes their experience, saying, “This house is sapping us, pulling out our cores. Our filthy roots expose themselves, but our faces are clean and wide.” Jemc’s imagery is beautiful but also (often literally) grounded in earth or in the brick and mortar of the house.
Reading The Grip of It provides many of those wonderfully odd literary experiences, little paradoxes where a read can trigger delight over the strength and surprise of the writing and also soak a reader in cold dread. It is a novel about the quirks of modern marriage and about the stress of first-time home ownership, but it is also a creepy, curiosity-piquing haunted house tale. It is at once fast-paced and a slow burn that will entertain those looking for a good scare as well as those who like a little literary meat with their bones.