If you’re like me and are a big fan of psychological horror, you’ve been craving a book like The Grip of It. Jac Jemc’s novel is pitched as a “literary horror novel,” and it blurs many lines. As a psychological horror novel, the book blurs the line between the natural and the supernatural, what is real and what is imagined. The book also blurs our expectations as readers, deftly balancing a twisting and turning plot with some beautifully visceral writing. These two things, when combined together make The Grip of It a thrilling, page-turner of a novel. It is a book that, like the haunted house at its core, sinks its hooks deep into you and refuses to let go until you turn that last page.
The Grip of It is not a typical horror novel. While The Grip of It features some of the flavors of the mainstream horror genre, Jemc’s skill as a writer elevates the book past that point. With wonderfully creepy, visceral prose, The Grip of It is a novel that, while reading, evokes a heightened sense of terror. The scares are not merely surface level though—they are deeply unsettling to the core. Every page is dripping with atmosphere and eeriness:
Maybe I hear a sound and Julie doesn’t. Maybe sometimes Julie cocks her ear and says, ‘what was that?,’ and I haven’t heard a thing. Maybe it’s possible to become deaf to something, to block it out. Maybe it’s not there for both of us to bear at the same time. Maybe we should remember our fear of the undercurrent when we go to the beach. Maybe we should stay inside and tell each other stories that are further from the truth. Maybe we should share something genuine for once. Stories from the deep, honest pits of us. But what if those buried, fetid stories are the ones that have bubbled to the surface? What if they’re right there, balanced on the edge of our teeth, ready to trip into the world without even our permission?
In this passage, Jemc writes with the same scary uncertainty that permeates the whole novel. The book utilizes poetic technique and highly crafted prose to create the wonderfully precise atmosphere and tone that elevates the novel; it’s a good story told incredibly well. To further this sense of uncertainty, the book asks questions and doesn’t necessarily answer them all, and it is in that uncertainty that the true terror arises.
While other horror novels about haunted houses might dwell in the realm of trope and cliché, The Grip of It presents a chaotic story of a couple sinking gradually into madness. The main characters, Julie and James, a young married couple, purchase a suburban house. They seek a change of scenery to hopefully fix their imperfect, complicated relationship—Julie’s perfectionism and James’ gambling addiction driving them apart. But the new house seems to have a life of its own. First they hear noises, then they see things that aren’t there, and all the while, the gulf of distrust between them grows. Things come to a head in a chaotic climax that has the characters, and the reader, questioning their own sanity, the world around them, and the trust that they have for each other.
The Grip of It is a uniquely structured novel. The majority of the chapters are mere vignettes, one or two page flashes. Each one centers around a relatively short period of time: an afternoon, a few minutes, a moment. Sometimes a chapter will be a single image, simmering low and sinister. The result is a book of ninety-two chapters which builds up little by little. The slowly mounting tension encroaches on the reader like a growing dark cloud of anxiety. It hangs over the reader. It is oppressive, and as the chaotic, jagged, and all-encompassing horror grows, so too do the stakes. However, being a book that strives for true unsettling horror, the ending is not an easy one. It’s complicated, and that in and of itself is unsettling. The reader feels drained upon finishing, which is exactly the type of reaction you want.
The Grip of It is a psychological horror novel that belongs in the same conversation as a classic like The Shining, or more modern examples in film like The Babbadook or Oculus. It’s a wonderfully unsettling and terrifying book written beautifully. To all the ravenous fans of the horror genre looking to devour a smart, creepy, and well written book, this is one that once you start, you won’t be able to put down.
The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc. New York, New York: FSG Originals, August 2017. 288 Pages. $15.00, paper.
Robert Young was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In 2015, he was Lead Poetry Editor of The Broken Plate. His poetry and fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Noble/Gas Qtrly, Midwestern Gothic, and The Evansville Review. Currently, he is pursuing an MA in creative writing at Ball State University. He has written book reviews for Heavy Feather Review and The Broken Plate before.