Women in Horror Reads: ‘The Grip of It’ by Jac Jemc

From the publisher:

Finalist for the Chicago Review of Books Fiction Award, Dan Chaon’s Best of 2017 pick in Publishers Weekly, one of Vol. 1 Brooklyn’s Best Books of 2017, a BOMB Magazine “Looking Back on 2017: Literature” Pick, and one of Vulture’s 10 Best Thriller Books of 2017.

Jac Jemc’s ‘The Grip of It’ is a chilling literary horror novel about a young couple haunted by their newly purchased home

Touring their prospective suburban home, Julie and James are stopped by a noise. Deep and vibrating, like throat singing. Ancient, husky, and rasping, but underwater. “That’s just the house settling,” the real estate agent assures them with a smile. He is wrong.

     The trouble with haunted house stories is that they have become predictable.  It can only end one of two ways: the house wins, or the people move.  What The Grip of It manages to do is provide some unique imagery that propels the story into some seriously creepy places.  It is able to explore the couple’s relationship in a way that is more obvious.  It makes it obvious that the book is going to explore their marriage from the start, and so the two are intertwined nicely without needing to rely heavily on metaphor.

     James and Julie are a couple that is very close, and knows each other very well.  They are confident that they’re relationship is solid, and it is….to a point.  Part of the reason for the move is that James has burned through most of their money with a gambling problem.  While they both tell themselves that the slate is clean and that they are starting completely fresh, the loss of trust that Julie experienced proves harder to shake than she thought.  As the book goes on, and the house builds a rift between them, those old resentments and new suspicions come to the surface.

     What I really loved about this book was the pacing.  Each chapter is only 2-3 pages long, and each chapter alternates between Julie’s and James’ point of view.  The rapid fire changes in perspective had me devouring this one, flipping pages as fast as I could to see what would happen next.  What worked about this approach is that it alternated between having each person’s perspective fill in the gaps, and confirming or denying suspicions that they had right away.  There were many things that happened that they were both convinced that the other had done.

     There are plenty of creepy occurrences here to keep any fan of ghost stories happy.  Mysterious drawings appear on walls.  Creepy children wander the woods.  Neighbours have shady backgrounds.  Mysterious bruises begin to appear all over Julie.  Passageways appear and disappear, and the geography of the house itself can’t be trusted.  The locals seem to have motives and interpretations.

     For me, however, the ending just didn’t satisfy.  I am not a person who necessarily needs the ending to be wrapped up in a neat little bow with every aspect explained.  I actually prefer a little ambiguity because I feel like it lends itself to discussion.  I felt like there was a lot of build up to explanations, but no actual ones.  Beyond the fact that the house is haunted, I felt like there were some teasers as to why it might be, but no solid explanation as to why, or how each of the elements came together.  Part of it is that I feel that it might be trying to cast doubt on each of the hints, suggesting that some of them are imagined, or reaching, to build suspense and cause the reader to question the narrators.  It almost felt like the start of an anthology, and that we were meant to see people before and after living in the house, to give us more pieces to put together.

     The fact that the ending fell a little flat for me was disappointing because this book is amazing.  It’s genuinely creepy, and it manages to pull a Hill House in that it makes the reader really root for these characters.  The story is not really about the house being haunted, it’s more about the fact that the house is able to screw with them.  It’s about relationships not being as secure as you think when they are tested, and about how the past doesn’t really go away.  There are some very disturbing moments, and the descriptions are vivid without being overly wordy.  It feels like you have a friend who is experiencing this, and they are struggling to explain it to you and to themselves.

     Overall, this book is an excellent addition to the haunted house subgenre of horror.  Jac Jemc has a great writing style, and I look forward to reading more!

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

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