Monday, September 11, 2017

A literary haunted house novel

The Grip of It

Jac Jemc


Publisher:  FSG Originals

Pub. Date: August 1, 2017

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

When haunted house novels go literature with a capital "L" they tend to stop being about hauntings and become all about the haunted. I can think of two haunted house novels that do this with an exquisite flourish. I suspect both of them were influences for Jac Jemc's The Grip of It.. Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is the great classic of literary haunted house novels. It presents no visible ghosts but a very troubled protagonist. The House Next Door by Anne River Siddons again presents no ghost but a house which can only be called naturally evil and nourished by the misfortune of the owners. Its horrors are based on the misfortune we constantly are concerned about in the so-called real life. Siddons' haunted house seems attracted to that misfortune, perhaps feeds on it, and the recipients of that misfortune becomes the focus of the book. In both cases, despite the strange and sometimes terrifying events in the novels, it is human nature not the supernatural that goes under the microscope.

This is precisely what happens in The Grip of it. James and Julie are excited to move into their new house motivated by the thought of starting anew, away from the city and away from the triggers of James' gambling addiction. It goes smoothly at first and the couple are willing to ignore distractions like a humming that permeates the house, wall stains that seems to expand, and the hinting of hidden rooms. As they try to return to a "normalcy" in their relationship, the occurrences continue to add up, including a prying neighbor that appears to be connected with the house in some way and unexplained bruises that appear on Julie's body, When drawings are found on the walls that neither Julie or James admit to doing, the situation becomes surreal and disassociating for the couple who wonder if the other is who they once were or now appears to be.

So what is this all about? As I said, this is about people not houses. Whether the house is haunted, or a catalyst to misfortune (like The House Next Door), or the occurrences are totally due to the psychological friction between James and Julie can be endlessly argued. A great too many weird things happen that do not comfortably fits into the theory that it is all psychological but the author never really finishes explaining them to the satisfaction of this reader. If I was to theorize on the theme, or to put in other words, the issue being explored in the couple's psyche, it seems that it is all about the attempt to seek normalcy in a relationship that is teetering on issues of mistrust and betrayal. James' gambling issues is a big one to ignore, or just hope it goes away due to a move, and the house appears to be playing on that doubt. This is a examination of couples attempting stability in a relationship when the participants are not ready and the trust is not yet back. The house appears to feed on it and the couple responds. At least, that is my theory.

Jemc's haunted house also bears some resemblance to Mark Z. Danielewski's The House of Leaves in that it seems to be almost in another dimension. Rooms and passages appears that shouldn't and later disappear. There is a claustrophobic feel to the house despite what is described as big enough for a family. Another thing the two novels have in common is, while touted as a horror novel, it eventually becomes a love story.

But I wanted a horror story and to a certain extent I did get one. I just wish the author tied a few more threads together. In reference to the horror elements, there tends to be a lot of tease and little resolution. There is that strange neighbor and we do get some history and background of the family in the house previously but it doesn't really fit into the rest of the story in any way that satisfies a resolution. It is rather unfortunate, since Jac Jemc is a superb writer whose poetic sense often takes over in the description of house and relationship. I really enjoyed the pace and the style but eventually became exhausted in looking for the pay-off to ease my horror mentality. There is certainly a pay-off in the emotional sense and that is worth the reading. As I said, this is a novel about human nature not ghosts. We now come back to the two books I mentioned at the beginning. They are the seminal models of the literary haunted house novel. If The Grip of It doesn't quite fit on the mantle next to them, the author certainly can't be faulted for a noble attempt.

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