THE GRIP OF IT / AUTHOR: JAC JEMC / PUBLISHER: TITAN BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Like the best creepy thrillers, The Grip of It pulls the reader into its increasingly disturbed world step by stealthy step, as the gap between reality and dysfunction experienced by its protagonists slowly stretches into a chasm. But this is not a story that ends with the familiar explosive showdown between the forces of good and evil. There’s little intrinsically original about the novel’s set-up, but what lifts this tale beyond the everyday haunted house page-turner is Jac Jemc’s unusual prose. Jemc crafts the type of unnerving narrative that slips back and forth between the everyday and the otherworldly in a way that feels seamless and unsettling at the same time.
Troubled professional couple James and Julie escape the pressures of city life in search of a new start in small-town America. James is a gambling addict in remission, while Julie is a frustrated perfectionist. Both are hoping to find stability in a rambling, detached house on a quiet street on the edge of the woods and near to the beach. As they try to settle themselves into new jobs and their new community, their huge home reveals secret hideaways and shifting rooms and unnerves them with untraceable odd noises. The strange behaviour of their neighbour leads them to discover more about the alarming history of the house. Before long, events start shifting in a more distressing direction as the building begins to exert its baleful influence over those within its walls.
To begin with, it feels like the local populous is made up of familiar ciphers: the wise bartender, the gossipy shopkeeper, the fair-weather work colleague and the no-nonsense cop. But, as things develop, it's their very ordinariness that helps to anchor the normality of a story in which reality seems to be coming apart at the seams. As the perspective passes between James and Julie in a series of quickfire alternate chapters, that sense of impending doom intensifies as the homeowners' sense of sanity - and their trust in each other - unravels. As Jemc’s dialogue tracks the corrosion of his characters’ cognitive capabilities, the pace of the narrative slows. It’s the kind of development that’s difficult to depict on the page without the pair’s inner monologues coming across as a series of arbitrary and feverish mental outpourings.
Jemc builds the tension and atmosphere of the story to entertaining effect but decides not to deliver the kind of orthodox payoff in the final chapters that many will be expecting. In truth, the haunted house tropes of the earlier part of the novel, together with a missing person investigation and the spooky folklore connecting different locations surrounding the house, are set to one side as the story unfolds.
While Jemc deserves credit for decrying the obvious, the minimalist end point means that the story concludes in a rather low-key way, with multiple plot threads left hanging and few definitive explanations on offer. The decision to leave so much unexplained and open-ended will doubtless frustrate those irked by the story’s incompleteness while pleasing others by its determination to forsake the predictable.