The Grip if It is a 2017 horror novel by Jac Jemc and my first Frighteningly Good Read for 2021. Married couple James and Julie have purchased their first home together in a small town just outside of the city where they met. They have decided to seek a fresh start after James’s gambling problem leaves his personal savings emptied out, putting some strain on their relationship. The transition to their new home is so seamless, however, it’s almost too good to be true.
They purchased the house, which has a forest behind it that leads to a beach, for a great price too. The seemingly innumerable hidden rooms are strange, but they provide a lot of extra storage space. And that constant deep, vibrating noise just at the edge of hearing, not unlike throat singing, is probably just the house settling, or so they tell themselves. They try their best to settle into their new home and lives, but it seems the house has other plans for them.
I first added this book to my to-read list not long after it came out. I’m interested in reading more ghost stories in general, and this haunted house tale, aptly compared to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, seemed to fit what I was looking for perfectly. Beyond that, I didn’t know much about the story going in, which was a positive for me, as with a story like this I prefer to go in as blind as possible.
From the very start of the novel, I could tell that I was going to be in for a treat of suspense and atmosphere. The sense that something about their new home is off was palpable from the prologue alone, and although it fluctuates in intensity throughout the book, it never fully abated. The strange, persistent noise in the house and all of its secret compartments are just the start, and their experiences get more disturbing as time goes on. Part of what I found most effective was how the abnormal sometimes blended with the mundane. The children playing bizarre games in the woods behind their house or the watchful eyes of their nosy neighbor, naturally a little unnerving but not all that irregular, were warped just enough to create a perfect sense of unease without becoming too surreal.
I think it’s best to read the book for yourself, so I’ll try to be more sparse on the details going forward, but needless to say things continually escalate as the story proceeds, even beyond a straightforward haunting, with Julia and James struggling to get a handle on their situation. What added to the suspense tremendously was the division of their perspectives, the book alternating between the two from chapter to chapter. In a story where you’re not sure how reliable your narrator may be and tension is ever-building between the couple, it was a great way to keep the reader from siding completely with either of them, as we are privy to the growing secrets, individual experiences, and inner frustrations of both parties. We cannot chalk everything up to simple delusion either, as sometimes their experiences are shared together or individually corroborated thanks to the reader getting a glimpse of both sides.
Most effective was the use of secondary characters, such as Julie’s best friend, a few of their in-laws, and a number of townsfolk, who helped to ground the story in a few ways. For one, they kept the story from being too much in either character’s head. We still see things from either Julie’s or James’s perspective, but these other characters felt nicely concrete, not completely filtered through their increasingly compromised points of view. For second, these characters have their own experiences in and around the house as well, which compromises how the reader might be interpreting what exactly is going on. No matter the stresses the two leads are going through, an outsider hearing or seeing the same thing is sobering to say the least. Something weird is definitely going on, but you’re never quite sure what it is, nor are you sure what it isn’t.
In many respects, this motif of uncertainty played to the story’s strengths. The townsfolk each have a varied story about the house’s troubled history, for instance, but there are pieces that fit together along the way, helping the reader to put together an obscure picture of it all. Where it started to lose me, however, was when I began to realize late into the book that it wasn’t building up to anything as concrete as I was hoping. By the end it became clear how much the story was inviting speculation, but for the bulk of it I was more swept away by it, hoping that the haunting and ever-mounting dread would lead somewhere more substantial. Unfortunately, it never did. There is a depth of cleverness to it all that I eventually started to appreciate, but I cannot shake that initial sense of disappointment that the ending left me with.
Disappointment notwithstanding, there is also no denying just how mesmerized I was by the majority of The Grip of It. I was hooked on the atmosphere, eager to see what might manifest in the house next, and a few moments even effectively startled me. The creeping dread was just so palpable. Julie and James were incredibly realized and fleshed-out characters too; the tension in their relationship felt so realistic and relatable, yet they also make such a strong couple that you can’t help but hope it will all turn out okay for them. I just wish the book didn’t hold the reader in that state of suspense until the end, leaving so much up to speculation and interpretation. However, there’s no denying that this was done with craft and care too. Consequently, your mileage may vary from mine in this respect. All in all, it’s a great haunted house novel that’s more than worth checking out.
My rating: 4 out of 5