The Grip of It by Jac Jemc
Terry: Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It (2017) made the long list for the Bram Stoker Award for 2017, and for good reason: it’s delightfully frightening, and refuses to be set down before the reader has finished it. We both loved it.
Here’s the premise: James and Julie have decided to leave the city for a small town a good distance away, looking for a clean break from financial problems (though Julie has determined she is not going to harp on how James gambled all of his nest egg away; she’s just glad the joint account is still intact). They’ve decided to buy an older home with lots of closets and dark wood, with a forest starting right where the backyard ends. There’s a weird sound in the house that the real estate agent assures them is just the house settling, but they’re charmed past that by all of the secret compartments; there are closets inside closets, a revolving wall that reveals a hidden room in the basement, and cavities in dropped ceilings. And the place is cheap besides.
But the house is — well, weird — almost from the moment they move in. And it’s not just the house, but everything around it. The neighbor is aggressively unfriendly. The children play a game called “Murder” in the woods behind their house. The backyard seems to vary in size; sometimes the woods are farther away, sometimes they’re closer. The people in town behave strangely when they learn where James and Julie live. Soon Julie develops deep, huge bruises. Her friend and coworker worries that James is hurting Julie, and remains suspicious when Julie denies it. Slowly, quietly, the house becomes more and more menacing, the neighbor more hostile, reality more malleable.
Julie and James tell the story from their very different points of view, mostly in short alternating chapters. It is an effective way to tell this story, because the reader is never sure whether this is a story of a marriage falling apart or of a strong marriage being tested by a haunted house, or both. Are Julie and James both unreliable narrators? Or is the house truly haunted?
Jac Jemc skillfully builds her story, piling detail upon detail, incident upon incident, until the horror of James and Julie’s experience is nearly unbearable — even though Jemc does not indulge in the sort of bloody scene that characterizes so much horror fiction. The Grip of It is quiet, the menace growing gradually, until it envelopes the reader so completely that it is hard to shake free from the mood so ably established by sharp writing. Jemc has clearly learned from such works as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. James and Julie’s house on Stillwater will join Manderley from Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Thornfield Hall from Bronte’s Jane Eyre as literary houses you only want to visit in the pages of a book, never in real life.
Terry: Marion, I was genuinely frightened by this book, which doesn’t happen all that often any more, given how much horror fiction I’ve read. This is the kind of book that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up while you’re reading. I found myself unwilling to turn out the light and go to bed late at night — not just because it was a difficult book to put down, but also because I didn’t really want to know what was hiding in the darkness. Even my black cat started to seem scary!
Marion: I could not put it down, and read it straight through, and then scared myself not once but twice. I sat bolt upright in bed when I heard a noise outside the house. Having survived that one, I gave myself palpitations when, the next morning, I went down the hall to turn on the furnace and saw a shadow in our guest room. It was the usual shadow thrown by the lamp that has always been in that corner, but when you read The Grip of It, you’ll understand why that was terrifying.
Terry: We learn a good bit about Julie in the course of this book, from her work to her friends to how she and James met and fell in love. James is considerably less forthcoming, seeming almost secretive not just in how little he shares with us in his chapters, but also about his background and life before he met Julie. That makes it easier to suspect that he is somehow to blame for what’s happening.
Marion: I thought there were several interesting things about James. You and I discussed one earlier. In the final third of the book, James and Julie go to stay with Julie’s friend. While they are out for dinner, the house is vandalized. The friend obviously suspects James (and the story leaves room for James to have done it), and the police immediately treat him like a suspect. At this point we learn that he has an Indian last name, and I wondered if the police were overreacting from racism, or simply because the male intimate partner is the most obvious suspect. Is racism, undiscussed, part of the tension between James and Julie? But Jemc is so good at giving us possibilities. The strangeness might have an organic cause like mold, right? Or it could be the neighbor, couldn’t it? I think the reason The Grip of It was scary was that our sense of the malleability of reality grows right along with Julie’s and James’s. Jemc’s ability to create a scene that is completely compelling in its details, and then pull the rug out from under the reader, is unparalleled.
Generally, the way these characters are revealed in sparse chapters, even with all the focus of the strangeness of the house, is brilliant. My take is that James and Julie are having problems, although Julie is confident that they caught James’s gambling early enough. We see and hear enough about Julie and her troubled relationship with her step-mother to get the sense that she’s not completely stable either, though. I love how caught up I was by these flawed people who nevertheless loved each other and are clearly being menaced by something.
Terry: I’ve always loved books with unreliable narrators, and this one had two of them. James seems less reliable as a life partner as the plot develops, but Julie seems prone to confabulation. Marion, you say that you believe that their marriage is in trouble, but how could a marriage survive the stresses of a house that draws them into hidden spaces that they sometimes can’t find their way out of? Or is it that they are imagining the latter situation? Which came first here, the chicken or the egg? I went back and forth on this a dozen times. It put me in mind of Caitlín Kiernan’s The Red Tree and even, to some extent, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita — I never knew what to believe and what to write off as an exaggeration or a sign of mental illness or a story Julie made up about James or vice versa. Marion, do you think there was an entity or a force? Do you think it was a ghost?
Marion: I think The Red Tree is a great comparison!
While I think two people can love each other and still have problems, and that marriages can weather tough times, I believe was something evil in that area, and I don’t see how it would be a ghost. I think much of what they both thought they saw was imagined, but those imaginary images were encouraged, or even placed there, by something.
I read The Grip of It because Terry recommended it. It scared me, but I’m glad I read it because it is one of best-done “really bad house” books I’ve ever read. Jemc knows just when to place her icy fingers on your nape and watch your shivers.
Terry: I’ve been recommending The Grip of It a lot, and have even bought a couple of copies for friends. And I immediately purchased Jemc’s previous two books, a novel and a book of short stories. Even if they’re not fantasy or horror in any way, I want to read them, because this woman really has a gift. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next!