The blankness of her eyes has filled her entire face.’
This story is an intrusive thought. It’s catching a sinister figure in the corner of your eye, then realising it’s a coat hanging on the door. It’s asking “did anyone else just hear that?” and the distant, sunken feeling in your gut. It’s a fever dream.
The Grip of It shares first-person accounts of a young couple who are struggling with some pesky inner demons. They’ve left the pandemonium of the city to purchase a creaky old Victorian house in small-town Wisconsin. James has a gambling addiction, and Julie wants to escape his usual haunts and temptations.
The first clue of what’s to come is realising they’re both masters of ignoring their feelings; sugar-coating with sweet suburban visions of baking for their neighbours as an antidote to their mistrust. Of course, as all psychical haunted house stories go, instead of owning that moth-eaten house, it starts to own them.
There are no traditional leaky pipes and dodgy electrics in this old house, but spaces growing behind walls — walls that are creeping with strange stains and drawings, mirrored unsettlingly as huge, spreading bruises on Julie’s body.
This Danielewski fantasy is even furthered by the mysterious neighbour eyeballing them each day, the child-like giggling echoing from the increasingly claustrophobic forest, and that eerie noise they can’t quite place.
‘It is unsettling how much it sounds like moaning […] but not the bellowing of someone in pain, more like an incantation, some sort of ritual snarl.’
As the couple try to figure out what’s going on in their new home, Jemc masterfully conveys their growing paranoia. The suspense builds tirelessly in short, lyrical chapters narrated alternatively by Julie and James — a sly trick to both keep us on the unstable path and to make sure we have a fair view of each character’s perspective, even if they don’t necessarily talk to each other.
Great. You’re the burdened mutual friend watching a relationship struggle from the outside, unable to tell either party what’s going on. Ultimately, what is happening in and around their new home is amplified by James and Julie’s failure to communicate with each other.
‘Did I tell him about this already? If not, I worry he’ll think I’ve been keeping secrets. And then, because I don’t want to keep secrets, I keep more secrets.’
The narrative swells into monologues of raw mania, and Jemc makes sure we’re perfectly placed for this. With poetic ambiguity mixed with our two very unreliable narrators, Jemc manages to avoid what we’d expect from an obvious haunted house flick.
Like the relationship that’s hanging on at the heart of the book, it’s subtler, harder to tell where the problems are rooted. Psychosis? Sickness? The paranormal? Not a clue. But if you’re looking for a fast-paced, cold-sweat story to leave you feeling subtly spooked and silently questioning reality — Jac Jemc’s got you.
By TNHC's Editorial Director, Emily Malone.