It isn’t only the couple’s house that is haunted in Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It. The adjacent woods, beach, and the small town itself become strange. Every space the couple enters eventually manifests a malevolent agency. Julie and James aren’t the only ones to experience the hauntings. Others hear it, see it, and feel it, and yet the ‘it’ is undeniably tied to the couple, as if emanating from them. Over the novel’s staccato chapters, the forces at work grow increasingly enigmatic and the dichotomies that often structure horror fiction—the psychological vs. supernatural, internal vs. external—are left to rot. In a prose that is poetic and bereft of consolation, Jemc unsettles our notions of the boundaries between ourselves, our partners, and anything else that may hurt us.
The sense of unknowability that prevails over the narrative is cast from the very beginning, both in a Wittgenstein epigraph riddling about doubt and the modes of inquiry available to us, and again in the prologue, in which James narrates a sequence of events that he also hedges against:
Maybe we move in and we don’t hear the intonation for a few days. Maybe we hear it as soon as we unlock the door. Maybe we drag our friends and family into the house and ask them to hear it and they look into the distance and listen as they try to describe it and fail.
It continues—maybe Julie’s foot breaks through the porch as soon as they arrive or maybe it happens months later; maybe they fix it immediately, maybe they wait. A blurred sketch of phenomena emerges, blurred not on account of the unreliability of memory. The prologue, like the rest of the novel, is in present tense. James’s uncertainty accompanies the moment of experience, as if he, in no point in time, knows which events actually occurred. The strange effect is enhanced by having swift passages of time narrated in present tense with the same equivocation. Reality and time seem to quiver.
The cause of this instability of experience precedes the new home though, precedes even the novel. We are told that, months prior, James had secretly gambled away his personal savings. When Julie asked about small withdrawals made from their joint account, James broke down and confessed. This breach of trust is what precipitates the move to the small town, away from big city temptations. The reader isn’t given the dramatic moment of the confession; instead, we’re made to feel the reverberations of that revelation as they try to move on. James feels Julie’s desperation in her suggestion to move. When James is late coming home from work, Julie is sick with dread at what he may be doing. In arguments, when the opportunity arises, Julie struggles to not pay back some of her pain. They are wounded and diminished, willing to hurt and trying to love.
It’s in the details of this broken intimacy, in what Julie and James share and withhold, how they receive and deliver slights, their rhythms of tenderness and distance, that the hauntings find their form. In a fit of compulsive behavior, James rips up the couple’s furniture, vainly searching for the source of what torments them. The next day he is contrite. He restores the living room, makes dinner for Julie. They both recognize the episode—James privately—as a relapse into the same destructive impulse that drove his gambling. Julie, close to tears, says if it happens again they need to get help, but James cannot bear the shame and attempts to reassert himself:
I feel incapable of facing the worry I’ve caused her. My mind insists that her recent transgressions have been more severe than my own. “We need to watch out for each other is all. I’ll do the dishes. You go relax.” I stand to gather our plates. Julie wanders to the couch. She stares at the television as if she can see something in its blank screen. I finish the dishes and hear the stairs creak.
He returns from taking out the garbage and heads up the stairs:
When I pass the guest room, I see Julie sitting in the dark wearing an old Mardi Gras mask we’d brought home from 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 where?” Julie says from our bed.
When James rushes back to the guestroom, Julie’s double is gone and the mask hangs back on the wall.
The double is rendered fleetingly and with so little detail that it heightens the unreal and unsettling effect of the encounter, but also invites us to project Julie’s despondence onto the double, to see it as a manifestation of such. It also informs Julie’s wound. Its whisper, its mask, a relic of more idyllic times, and its stillness in the dark all lend a mournful aspect, which is fitting, since Julie’s despair holds the realization that James may never change. She mourns a version of him capable of being vulnerable in adversity, a version that doesn’t exist and perhaps never did. Her memories of happier times, when she still believed in that James, now color with grief.
The couple’s search for answers never feels promising. Their attempts to force coherence feel like part of the haunting. Their missteps and desperation only produce stranger phenomena until all is in doubt and all that remains is the sense that intimacy creates its own reality, in which betrayals and secrets and hurts leave not just fault lines carrying tension, but ruptures in the nature of experience and time.
What’s truly remarkable about this novel is that its moments of unease and horror are primarily achieved through its language. Jemc’s narrators seem disembodied, as if they exist apart from what they observe. The narration isn’t dispassionate, but there’s a distance. Emotion is described, but isn’t given in to, not immediately. It’s absorbed and held until it overwhelms, and even then it’s released in poetic cadences. Consequently, regardless of Julie and James’s distress within the narrative, there is an authority granted to their voices. So when their narrated reality trips on itself, the moment is unnerving:
At dinner, James lifts his plate to put it in the sink. When he returns to the table, an empty plate remains where he’d been sitting. “It’s been there all along,” I insist. “I wondered what you were up to.”
There are several deftly constructed moments like this that induce a sudden cognitive disruption: the plate was gone—Julie tells us so, but then the plate isn’t gone, and she insists it’s been there all along. We’re compelled to re-read the passage to make sense of it, but whatever the cause or meaning of these impossible sequences, the language and the affect produced conveys their terrible wrongness.
Jemc’s language is also at the core of the novel’s most terrifying sequence. The possession of Julie is made real—that is, occurs—through language. It’s hinted at earlier by subtle shifts in Julie’s diction. As she becomes convinced that James is not who he claims to be and is somehow complicit in the hauntings—accusing him, in a markedly religious tone, of “spreading its doctrine”—she begins to refer to him as “not James.” She uses the term without expressing any concern of its implications, for example that an unknown entity is mimicking or has always been mimicking her husband. The narration is more than distant. It’s cold, and prone to imagining James’s death: “I envision him pummeled by the tide at the lakefront, facedown in an alley somewhere. I think of him crawling back into the earth like a worm after rainfall.”
When Julie is finally possessed, it occurs as a conjuring of another voice:
My thoughts guide themselves like imitations. If there was another voice in my head, what would it sound like? I try out different inflections, like writing a script, until one of the voices comes through easy and clear, less like I’m making it up and more like I’m listening.
James offers her “empty reassurance” and it’s the final trigger. She careens from hope and spirals into a disquieting stream of language acts, something beyond psychology—“beware your eardrums burst first and ring like so many coins from a slot machine and wish your fortune away and you wonder what you thought you were missing, and your hearing starts to take the form of roots”—and on and on, the voice “croons” into jagged non sequiturs— “How hard it is to have surprising feelings when you know someone is watching. Being startled out of sleep by the sensation of falling”—until the “chant has risen in pitch, still monotone, but earsplitting […s]he screeches…” and on the other end emerges a priest’s voice commanding James to bring forth the god in him before the devil has its way with him.
The narration and voice transform so absolutely and though there are fragments in Julie’s speech—aphorisms about intimacy, images of dissolution—that do relate to the broader narrative, meaning itself seems locked away in some realm to which we have no access.
Even after the possessed language recedes, the recovery doesn’t feel like much of a recovery. The possession’s crash upon the text is obliterating and any explanation—one is offered by doctors—seems too of this world, and thus too meager to account for what we’ve experienced. We were spoken to directly by this not-Julie and it was far too intimate.
In horror, narrative resolution often erases the adversity that preceded it. Too pat an explanation reduces the horror, collapses it. Here, the ending never comes, or it comes, but it cannot erase what came before—the experience of a couple’s world dissolving and reading becoming a haunted reality.