Author Jac Jemc describes the house in her book, The Grip of It as having windows that distort the view beyond them. That’s very much how this short novel itself feels. I never quite got a grip (pun intended) on what was happening, nor did the main characters. And that’s the horror of it.
Jemc captures the feeling of coming unglued perfectly. The main characters are a married couple, James and Julie who decide to leave their unnamed city and move to a rambling old Victorian near a lake. They think they’re escaping a difficult time in their lives, for a simpler time and place. They’re charmed by the house’s secret passageways and its quiet neighborhood.
Unfortunately for them, the house does not seem to accept their presence. It makes noises and creates smells. They find that things have moved or changed. And from there everything begins to unravel. Their already tenuous relationship cannot remain the same, as it strains from crisis after crisis. They have a nosy, curmudgeon of a neighbor, who adds to the mystery.
As James says, “What is worse? To be confronted by an obvious horror, or to be haunted by a never-ending premonition of what’s ahead?” This is the crux of the book, because Julie and James are haunted by a never-ending progression of small ills and oddities, which add up to a sense of drowning in their own lives.
Jemc builds a strong sense of dread and anticipation by alternating the perspective between James and Julie. In each short chapter we get a peek into one character’s thoughts or actions, but we never stay there long. Like a roller coaster, were yanked into the other perspective, just before we see what’s actually around the corner. It’s a wonderfully creepy sense of jarring motion.
Just a few weeks ago, I read a memoir of a young woman living with mental illness. Reading Jemc’s book after this, made me think immediately of mental health as a possible cause for the horrors the young couple experiences. The sense of frantic feelings, both expressed and unexpressed, is strong in The Grip of It. But it wouldn’t be as good a book if the resolution was so straightforward. Jemc pulled me this way and that, never quite explaining the underlying causes. Had she done so, it wouldn’t have been half as satisfying a read.