Jac Jemc’s compulsively readable third novel is a psychological thriller that explores the descent of a young couple with a troubled marriage into a paranormally tormented life after they leave the big city for a fresh start in a small town. They move into a creepy old Victorian home that is – and there is no way of getting around it – a classic “haunted house.”
Jemc has fun with subverting the tropes of the horror story and the “haunted house” sub-genre in particular. Her approach is more Daphne du Maurier/Shirley Jackson territory than a Stephen King/Peter Straub style shocker.
James and Julie met on an internet dating service and are now comfortably married. Or so they keep saying. (The narration switches back and forth between them in short chapters.) Julie has a good but never quite defined job in the creative sector. James writes computer code, but by his own admission he isn’t particularly good at it.
He is also a gambling addict who has just lost all of his savings and is starting to eat into the couple’s shared bank account. In an easy to miss throwaway line we also learn that James is of Middle Eastern descent.
Julie sees herself as a problem solver and she decides that moving to a small town away from the temptations of James’s “old haunts” is in order. It’s an impulsive decision that neither James or Julie are entirely sold on, but they have come to a point in their relationship where honest communication with each other is sorely lacking.
Weird things start to happen right from the start. The house seems to have secret passages and hidden rooms that change shape at will, mysterious writing and strange symbols appear on the walls, the forest just past their backyard seems to be creeping closer, and there are invisible children playing macabre games in the woods.
Then there is the house’s incessant “breathing” (“Just the house settling,” says the realtor). Julie tells us, “It is unsettling how much it sounds like moaning. But not the bellowing of someone in pain, more like an incantation, some sort of ritual snarl.”
It is clear from early on that the house’s “hauntings” are manifestations of James and Julie’s troubled marriage. They start by blaming the other for engineering the strange goings on as some sort of twisted joke, then they each blame themselves in some sort of cosmic way. “Bad behavior heralds ruin,” mutters Julie ominously.
“I feel followed, as if instead of the house’s being haunted, the haunting has crawled into me,” Julie tells us. James worries that “I think we’re haunting ourselves. We’re pulling ourselves apart. We’re noticing gaps and stepping into them instead of avoiding them.”
The haunted house story, and the things that the couple either experiences, invents or imagines (depending on your take) is eerie on its own and Jemc builds the suspense without violence or pyrotechnics. Julie and James are soon working against each other and are jeopardizing their new jobs in town.
“Did I tell him about this already?” Julie asks herself at one point. “If not, I worry he’ll think I’ve been keeping secrets. And then, because I don’t want to keep secrets, I keep more secrets.” And later, “James and I are living in a Latin mass, memorizing ritual, reciting mysteries we’ve given up on deciphering, foreign syllables unrolling in order.”
But, the underlying message is that the lack of communication and the shattered trust in each other is the real cause of their psychic turmoil. This metaphor adds to the literal spookiness of the story without being heavy handed. (Julie, for example begins to suffer from large unexplainable bruises, as if the haunting of the house and the pain of her marriage is literally being written on her own body.) The more closed off from each other they become, the more the creepiness deepens.
James and Julie don’t seem like sympathetic characters on the surface of things. They are shallow in a lot of ways and they are maddeningly good at making bad decisions. (James’s gambling problem is off the table as a topic of conversation but it still poisons the air.) James and Julie are like the stock characters in horror movies who always make the dumb choice while the audience is yelling “Don’t open the door!”
But, it’s their very helplessness that made me want to root for them. They are constantly on edge, constantly worried about money, constantly dissatisfied with life. They are both specific characters but also sort of everyman/everywoman, or more especially, everymillennial, with their fears about being actual adults.
The novel worked for me on both the literal and metaphorical levels. It is a very assured and thought-provoking novel. The chills never felt gratuitous and the undertones of the horror rising from the troubled marriage was explicit but never forced. All in all, an excellent literary balancing act.
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc, Farrar Straus & Giroux