It’s the age-old question of the haunted house genre, isn’t it? Why wouldn’t they just move? It crosses my mind with every haunted house movie I watch or novel I read. Sure, sometimes you’re snowed in at the Overlook and there’s no conceivable way to get out but most times, if I was in the protagonist’s shoes, I’d just up and move. I don’t care if I was financially in debt and didn’t have the money or means to sell and buy again. That’s what bankruptcy’s for! Getting away from ghosts! In fact, imagining when I’d move and the alternate story it would lead to as I watch/read a scary haunted house story is one of my horror coping mechanisms. So I thought, in honor of Halloween and all things scary and spooky, haunted and horrific, macabre and malevolent, I’d write a li’l series about this. I’d read haunted house novels and ruminate on when, if I were living within the events of the novel, I’d move the heck out of that house. First up, is Jac Jemc’s The Grip Of It which is simultaneously the best and the scariest haunted house story I’ve ever read!
This piece contains minor spoilers for certain incidents in the novel but the ending and all major twists are left out of the discussion. So read on based on your comfort with such spoiler territory ;D.
So, this piece isn’t a review or a deconstruction or analysis so much as it is a stream of consciousness look at how I’d fair if I was living the events of The Grip Of It. With that being said, here’s the Publisher’s Synopsis of the novel:
Touring their prospective suburban home, Julie and James are stopped by a noise. Deep and vibrating, like throat singing. Ancient, husky, and rasping, but underwater. “That’s just the house settling,” the real estate agent assures them with a smile. He is wrong.
The move – prompted by James’s penchant for gambling and his general inability to keep his impulses in check – is quick and seamless; both Julie and James are happy to start afresh. But this house, which sits between a lake and a forest, has its own plans for the unsuspecting couple. As Julie and James try to establish a sense of normalcy, the home and its surrounding terrain become the locus of increasingly strange happenings. The framework – claustrophobic, riddled with hidden rooms within rooms – becomes unrecognizable, decaying before their eyes. Stains are animated on the wall – contracting, expanding – and map themselves onto Julie’s body in the form of painful, grisly bruises.
Like the house that torments the troubled married couple living within its walls, The Grip of It oozes with palpable terror and skin-prickling dread. Its architect, Jac Jemc, meticulously traces Julie and James’s unsettling journey through the depths of their new home as they fight to free themselves from its crushing grip.
I read this novel in a day because I couldn’t put it down! Annnnnnd because maybe I was scared of the dreams I’d have if I went to bed before I knew how the story resolved itself. And maybe I began reading it first thing in the morning because I was scared to read it when the sun went down. And maybe Kalie was sweet enough to come over and hang out at mine that night after work because I didn’t finish it when the sun was up and I was too scared to read this novel alone in my house when it was dark. Who can say?
Page 34 – Julie’s at her new job and she’s talking with her new coworkers, “I tell stories about finding more secret places in the house and about how floorboards shift and we find the blank treasure that is more storage and how the humidity swells the windows in their frames and how the glass makes the forest waiting behind the house seem wet and close and I say we think our neighbor might be spying on us and they laugh about what they think is my paranoia.”
Ok, I’d be good here. If I was freaked out at all by bonus storage, I’d just ignore it. I’ve lived in my home for over ten years and I’ve literally never been in the attic above my garage once because mice could be up there and I hate mice and when I hear them in there I call Dad and ask him to set traps because that’s how adults handle their problems – letting Dad trap mice while you avoid the attic. And creepy neighbors spying? That’s annoying but I’m not moving because of it.
Page 44-46 – Working in the garden Julie finds, “I finger the soil, scraping, unpacking, until it’s fresh and loose, and I begin to work my fingers into the earth, get my hands buried deep enough that my wrists feel the cool soil, let them stay there, feeling fixed in place, grounded until the chill resolves, and my hands have warmed the earth around them and I feel the dirt go to mud, and it takes a huge effort to pull them up, and the first thing I think when I see them is that these aren’t my hands. They are different hands than the ones I dug into the ground. These fingers look longer now and these palms open wider.” The next morning, Julie realizes the holes in the backyard have filled themselves and the smudges and dirt stains she left on the sofa have vanished as well.
Yep, I’d be a little freaked here. Who wouldn’t be? But moving’s stressful and maybe I was just in the sun too long or maybe my blood sugar was low (Julie isn’t diabetic but I am so I could see excusing this in that way).
Page 49-50 – Grocery shopping, the checkout lady asks Julie about where she and James are from and, when Julie presses her, she shares the history of the house they bought. She tells Julie, “Woman who lived there didn’t leave that house her whole life. Born there and people say died there, too. Nobody ever found a body though….Well, her family was real rich, kept to themselves. People talked about writin’ on the walls. Messages and drawin’s. The painted over it all or replaced the plaster, I’m sure.” When Julie asks, “What kind of drawings?” the cashier replies, “Witchcraft, voodoo, who knows? They say she started young drawin’ on the walls. Her parents would holler at her and crash around the house tryin’ to get her to stop, but as soon as they calmed down, she’d start up again. Then they gave up, let her go wild. But I betcha haven’t even seen a lick of that stuff.”
Except she has so I’d be really freaked out now but there’s still a chance I’d chalk it up to my imagination. That’s the thing I learned doing this! It’s one thing to watch/read a haunted house story and know the house is haunted and say you’d move out at the first sign of trouble. But it’s something else entirely to imagine myself in the story and think of how I’d behave. Because I have an anxiety disorder and when my part which holds my anxiety starts running, my brain can imagine all sorts of terrible things! If you’re creeped out and need a dose of levity, here’s how Ryan George presents it:
I love that sketch because
I watch Ryan George YouTube videos more than I’ve watched some of my favorite TV shows and movies my brain does that all the time! If I was really in a house where these weird things were really occurring, I think I’d chalk a lot of it up to my anxiety creating something out of nothing…at least for awhile. All of a sudden these horror story protagonists feel less reckless to me!
Page 64 – Julie narrates, “That night I find a body in the attic and it’s hard as diamonds and I look for more. The second body I find is a pile of soft bones and surprising shapes of teeth behind a panel in the basement. In the middle of the kitchen, the third body’s nails have screamed themselves out of the retreating of collapsed flesh, a pile of rot that lies there as if it hasn’t been moved in decades. I go outside and find a cranium, a tibia, a phalanx, and a pubis scattered from an open grave, as though dropped out of gathering arms, and I assemble them into a skeleton, ablaze under that broad and bleeding moon. I dream these bodies as answers and then wake and stir at how close this nightmare felt to reality. I drift through them again at the breakfast table, these dreams shaped like memories.”
I have terrible nightmares and weird dreams all the time so this wouldn’t throw me.
Page 75 – Discussing the events of the previous night we see, “James agrees, but then pauses, and I am nervous about what he will say next. ‘That sound last night, though, that was…something alive, right? It sounded like a beast – which, I know, seems crazy – but whatever that was, it wasn’t a clog in a vent or the house settling.’” Julie knows the truth in her mind but she’s scared of what it will do to their already stressed and cracking marriage if she agrees. So instead she brushes it off saying, “I’m not that certain, I guess.”
What blew my mind as I read is I could see myself doing the same thing. I can’t believe how much I think I’d endure before leaving when I try to imagine myself really living within the events of the story! Because it is so easy to explain away a lot of the haunting events we see in these stories! Time for another Ryan George video to illustrate:
But there has to come a time when I’d move out. Right? As I read, I kept wondering when I’d hit that threshold.
Page 82 – “When another bruise appears down the length of my shin, I go to the doctor and he tells me I’m dangerously low on an array of vitamins….I buy the vitamins and swallow them down each day, but the bruises still come. My inner thighs look as if they’ve been pummeled so I stop going to the beach to walk or swim and start wearing sweatpants to work because everything hurts. I stop James on his way to the living room and lift up my shirt to show him the bruise leaking down my chest, bleeding from my sternum to my belly button…”
I’ve seen too many horror movies where bruises indicate the presence of the demonic! I’d be out! Nope. No, no, no, no, no. If I was in Julie’s place this is where I’d be out. If, by some insane stretch of the imagination, I didn’t leave here, I’d get the fuck outta Dodge come page 98. But I’m not gonna share what happens there ;D. You can figure it out for yourself if you read this! But if I was in James’ place, I’d leave here:
Page 92 – “Back in the house, I shake my shoes off inside the door. I head upstairs. When I pass the guest room, I see Julie sitting in the dark wearing an old Mardi Gras mask we’d brought home form vacation once upon a time. ‘What are you doing in there?’ She whispers, ‘Nothing.’ I barely hear it. I exhale a short laugh. I keep moving to our bedroom. ‘What am I doing in where?’ Julie says from our bed. She is tucked in tight, book in hand. I startle when I see her. I return to the guest room. The mask is back on the wall.”
Fuck that. I’d be packing my bags that night! I’d grab the essentials – journals, photo albums, Doctor Who DVDs, novels, comics, wall art, and t-shirts – everything else could be purchased anew.
Here’s the thing, the novel is 276 pages so I didn’t even scratch the surface here! Despite scaring the hell out of me and making me jump, scream, and/or swear every time the phone rang as I was reading, Jac Jemc’s The Grip Of It is brilliant. It’s one of the scariest books I’ve ever read…and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, too! From the plotting and pacing to the character development to the emotional charge of the narrative, this novel was magnificent. I am eternally grateful to the Barnes & Noble employee who put this on their “Exciting Voices in Horror” (or something to that effect) endcap this summer because I may’ve never discovered Jac Jemc without her help! While I’ve not read any other Jac Jemc novels yet, I would not be upset should more come my way this Christmas.
Now, I’m going to go off and read something cheery – a Doctor Who novel perhaps – and enjoy the fact that there’s nothing sliding around my house this evening except me and my unicorn, Justin. So I don’t have to worry about moving out and leaving whatever the hell was in Julie and James’ house behind. I hope you have a quiet night too, dear reader, and that nothing wicked your way comes :D.