There is at the core of the American writing tradition an interest in haunts, specters, and otherworldliness as they allow play, or what Hawthorne refers to as “a certain latitude” in fashion and form. Jac Jemc’s latest book on FSG Originals, The Grip of It, seems to me to honor this tradition while finding its own voice. On the surface, the book is a haunted house story—the story of a couple who move away from the rush and clank of the city and buy a home in the suburbs only to find that there are more things that go bump in the night than they could have ever expected. Where as we have seen this particular frame of a story in popular culture movies such as Amityville Horror and the lesser-discussed Something Evil, Jemc adds something unique to this category with her writing.
The relationship of the characters to their objective realities follows a similar trajectory of the genre. As suspicious things in the house begin to happen, the characters grow more anxious and from this anxiety more energy is produced in the narrative, which in turn, allows for more suspicious phenomena to occur. It is in the juxtaposition of the two main characters’ points of view that Jemc finds new ground. Where as the traditional narrative requires one of the characters to play the “straight man,” so that the spouse’s perspective is called into question consistently, Jemc has her married couple, James and Connie, begin to become more and more erratic as the novel progresses. In order to do this, she establishes a couple of weak points in Connie and James’s relationship.
James is a recovering gambling addict who is worried about slipping back into his old habits; Connie is obsessed with control and uniformity and worries that James will begin gambling again. The natural world and the characters’ personality types set the backdrop for James and Connie to unravel as their relationship, health, and sanity are challenged by the strange series of events that unfold in the book—Jemc successfully juxtaposes the ghosts of the supernatural world with the ghosts of the natural world, and as a result, the reader must engage with the book to search for clues that might validate the claims of the narrators.
To keep the tension going, Jemc never allows her readers a chance to fully know if the haunting is authentic, but it’s not validation of the supernatural that the reader needs to enjoy this book. The pleasure of this text is in the participation of the reader, the act of taking Jemc’s narrative gaps and her characters’ fugue states and constructing the story they want (or don’t want). Though, much of the book is really about the relationship of James and Connie and what they are willing to do to save their relationship (and more importantly their willingness to support each other through the chaos even though they’re both filled with doubts) the supernatural and strangeness of their surroundings is the fuel that propels this book and keeps the reader moving through the chapters.
What separates a good supernatural story from schlock are the ways in which the author subtly approaches the subject. It is here where Jemc’s writing really shines. She holds back enough to keep the reader engaged in the construction of their own fears, which is often much more effective than the fleshed out monster in the closet readers have come to expect in pulp paperbacks. She does not offer clowns in sewers or dolls that attack, but sets the mood but offering the occasional minor key. For example, the country home is big on the surface, but once the characters step inside, they realize that it appears much bigger, due to the strange compartments littered throughout the house—especially in the basement. Perhaps even more effective are the slight anomalies that set a delightful uneasy mood. A lock that turns the wrong way, a stain on the wall that seems resilient to paint, an unpleasant odor, children James and Connie can hear play in the trees but never see for long enough to satisfy their own curiosities, and a shoreline that seems to grow ever closer.
I was quite excited to read The Grip of It and when it arrived, I read through it very quickly, which was in no small part, due to the quickness of Jemc’s prose, but I took a month off before rereading it for this review, as I wanted to get beyond my own bias and excitement about the novel. Still, the second reading held up—dare I say, made me like the book even more? My fear is that this book will become a movie made by someone like James Wan, where all the subtlety is removed and the tender heart of the book is replaced by a marketable monster-child. Simply put, we need more books like this, books that allow us fear without forcing themselves on us with a two dimensional ta-da.
The Grip of It
by Jac Jemc
FSG Originals; 288 p.