The Grip of It by Jac Jemc
I would like to thank Lydia from titan for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review
Publisher – Titan
Published – 3rd September
Price - £7.99
…tells the story of Julie and James, a young couple haunted by their new home. The move - prompted by James’ penchant for gambling, his inability to keep his impulses in check – is quick and seamless; both Julia and James are happy to leave their usual haunts and star afresh. But the house, which sits between lake and forest, has plans for the unsuspecting couple…
The architecture becomes unrecognizable, decaying before their eyes. Stains contract and expand, mapping themselves on to Julia’s body in the form of bruises; mould taints the water that James pours from the sink. As the couple search for the source of their mutual torment they become mired in the history of their peculiar neighbours and the mysterious previous residents of the house.
Regular readers of the blog will know that just the idea of moving to a new house for me is pretty horrific (it took three failed moves before I actually got to the new warren) it is stressful, but the fun part of moving is that sense of a fresh new start. But moving into a new home can also at the same time be a weird form of transgression – we are taking over someone’s old home; inserting yourself into a new neighbourhood and slowly finding those reminders of the past occupants can be disconcerting as we try to build our future. Could that clash of the past and present be even sometimes described as haunting? In Jac Jemc’s brilliantly eerie story The Grip of It we are plunged into a couple’s increasing nightmarish descent within a home where reality itself really is uncertain.
Julie and James are a young outwardly successful and happy middle-class couple. They’ve decided to move away from their urban home to a smaller town with a charming house on the edge of a lake. It’s a house where the previous occupants have hidden compartments and secret doors, so it looks intriguing plus a lakeside location what more could you want? But once they’ve settled into their new home and new jobs then things start to get strange – weird noises at night; unexplained mould stains appears; they note an elderly neighbour who clearly doesn’t wish to be friends but constantly looks into their home; the woods are getting closer and there are shadows in rooms that no one can explain. As the days past the house’s mysteries becomes their overriding obsession to discover but the cost is racking up in work, friendships, health and their relationship.
This is a fascinatingly chilling horror novel told in largely alternating chapters between Julia and James swapping their side of the story as they realise their situation isn’t normal. Jemc really gets you feel both characters’ point of view. Julia who led the need for the move after James got into debt but wants to rebuild the relationship and James trying to show he’s learnt from the experience. Neither are flawless but we feel for them there is an obvious love and affection between them but slowly as they explore Jemc adds the strange incidents. Initially just weird but slowly the tension ramps up. The way Jemc achieves this really stands out as a testament to great writing skill. This novel takes a fascinating approach into wrong footing us. We read a scene and then a few sentences later what we experienced is shown to us as incorrect often without any explanation. As things escalate then as the reader, we get to doubt what anyone tells us and that really starts to warp our own view of reality within the story.
Another factor that really comes across the cost of these encounters on the couple and that give us an emotional investment that a bad horror story will often ignore. The encounters take both a physical and mental toll on both characters. For Julia it’s an actual physical reaction in the shape of mysterious bruises that her friends and colleagues suspect may be signs of abuse. For James the mystery of the house means his new job doesn’t seem to have quite the same lure. It’s slowly apparent that as the story progresses that the two are changing and despite the comments of friends and family we see as the reader of their thoughts that they’re helpless to stop. The latter third of the book these changes have mounted up in such a way that what they’re telling us in their chapters get increasingly more uncomfortable and worrying. A sense of escalation that is about to go horribly wrong as each beings to suspect the other of not telling the whole truth and a suspicion they are the actual culprits. The horror comes as we really can’t intervene ourselves to stop them.
It’s very much a story of ambivalence and Jemc has avoided giving us a single answer for what is going on. There are myriad potential reasons for why this couple is disintegrating ranging from their past to the potentially supernatural. A lot of the events though can’t happen in the real world the way we are told and that ambiguity both feeds James and Julia’s obsessions but also our own to uncover the house’s secrets. The unexplainable is always disconcerting and a lack of any firm answer one way or the other may be annoying if you like a nice clear-cut explanation but for me it adds to the sense of a situation full of danger – nothing can be trusted.
I will definitely be watching out for Jemc’s work in the future as this was a novel I really enjoyed staying up late in my house on my own devouring but as the house settled and those usual creaks and noises outside took place, I do admit to feeling rather uncomfortable as it gets that sense the normal being slightly twisted out of recognition. If you’re a fan of excellent horror, then this novel would be perfect reading as the nights are now getting darker and longer…just keep an eye on the shadows when reading.