Written by Carolina Eleni Theodoropoulos
Jac Jemc’s new novel, The Grip of It, is a story of a haunted house and the couple within it. At her reading during the Texas Book Festival, Jemc spoke about using the haunted house trope as a metaphor for the couple’s deeply rooted problems. The more they are disturbed by the unknown of the house and its surrounding area, the more is revealed of the dysfunction of their relationship.
When James and Julie are house searching, they are stopped by a noise, “deep and vibrating, like throat singing. Ancient, husky, and rasping but underwater.” The real estate agent interrupts, “It’s just the house settling.” He is wrong. The married couple decides to move when James’s gambling debts get too high. Excited to start anew, the move into their new suburban home is smooth and quick. But very soon strange things begin to happen.
Jemc says that in the novel she intended to cast doubt on what her characters and her readers think they know. Her novel starts with an epigraph by Wittgenstein who says:
Imagine that a child was…so clever that he could at once be taught the doubtfulness of the existence of all things. So he learns from the beginning: ‘That is probably a chair.’ And now how does he learn the question: ‘Is it also really a chair?’
While other authors intend to gain their reader’s trust from the very first page, Jemc begins a two-page prologue with a list of “maybes” and questions that will plague both character and reader throughout the novel. “Maybe we move in and we don’t hear the intonation for a few days. Maybe we hear it as soon as we unlock the door,” begins the prologue. So the reader plummets into a universe of uncertainty and mystery, where questions are already piling up. Jemc builds a sense of distrust by utilizing several writing techniques. She alternates chapters between James’s and Julie’s perspectives, thus allowing her to have both characters experience the same event but live and portray it differently. Sometimes, only one will see something and the other as a result will question their partner’s sanity and by extension, reality itself. By granting James and Julie distinct experiences, Jemc manipulates what they share with each other and what they withhold, and to what benefit or detriment.
But it’s not only the house that haunts them; the house isn’t the source of the problem. Jemc laughs as she repeats the typical advice shouted to haunted house folks: “Just get out of the house!” She wasn’t going to make it that simple. She extends the strangeness beyond the house, into the woods behind it, into the lake beyond that. She adds a double by making the neighbor’s house mirror theirs, so identical and deceiving, that the characters wonder how they got there.
Jemc didn’t want her book to be a haunted house story, where in the end all the loose threads are joined, and all questions are put to rest. Things are explained, she says, but not finalized. She wants the reader to carry this doubt into the world, to cast a curious eye beyond the page. In writing a novel like this she revisited some classics, like Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Mostly she studied their structure to see where her novel would fall in this continuum of haunted house tales.
The house is a metaphor, she says. The Grip of It is a horror story and a love story. It is a horror story of a love story. As the house sprouts new rooms between corridors, and rooms within rooms, as the characters uncover more spaces within their home that are unused—they discover more is hollow than they at first thought. They expose the empty space in their relationship; their problems surface to test the boundaries of their marriage. At the same time, they come to question what is real, for them and for their spouse. Jemc succeeds at delivering a psychological horror story of the truest kind, posing the urgent question: What happens when you realize you no longer know the person closest to you?