Speculative Chic Book Club: The Grip Of It

Welcome to the Speculative Chic Book Club! Each month, we invite you to join us in reading a book that will sometimes be picked beforehand and sometimes be voted on by you, our readers. We’re still working on the format, so following the review of the book and some starter questions, we invite you all to discuss your thoughts in the comments.

The Grip Of It (2017)
Written by: Jac Jemc
Pages: 273 (Trade Paperback)
Publisher: FSG Originals

Why I nominated it for book club: I wanted something that was supposed to be scary, and this was recommended on several lists.

Premise:

Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It is a chilling literary horror novel about a young couple haunted by their newly purchased home

Touring their prospective suburban home, Julie and James are stopped by a noise. Deep and vibrating, like throat singing. Ancient, husky, and rasping, but underwater. “That’s just the house settling,” the real estate agent assures them with a smile. He is wrong.

The move — prompted by James’s penchant for gambling and his general inability to keep his impulses in check — is quick and seamless; both Julie and James are happy to start afresh. But this house, which sits between a lake and a forest, has its own plans for the unsuspecting couple. As Julie and James try to establish a sense of normalcy, the home and its surrounding terrain become the locus of increasingly strange happenings. The framework — claustrophobic, riddled with hidden rooms within rooms — becomes unrecognizable, decaying before their eyes. Stains are animated on the wall — contracting, expanding — and map themselves onto Julie’s body in the form of painful, grisly bruises.

Like the house that torments the troubled married couple living within its walls, The Grip of It oozes with palpable terror and skin-prickling dread. Its architect, Jac Jemc, meticulously traces Julie and James’s unsettling journey through the depths of their new home as they fight to free themselves from its crushing grip.

This review contains lots of spoilers, as will the discussion in the comments below. If you have finished the book yet, check back! We’ll still be here.


Discussion: I read this book in one sitting on one of my days off, and I’m not sure if it’s because I read it in daylight or because it genuinely just didn’t . . . . grip me that well, but this did book didn’t really deliver for me on the scary front. Unsettling? Sure, slightly at times, but I felt there was a lot in it that was left unexplored.

I couldn’t help but compare it to House of Leaves, which I read in college and which absolutely freaked me out for the entire time I was reading it. This book had more of a daydream quality to it. They went somewhere, woke up somewhere else, there was always a question of what was actually happening and what wasn’t. The neighbor appeared and disappeared. They took the evil with them to other locations but then, at the end, are somehow able to just sell the house and move away? While technically, I guess, they were in some sort of peril most of the way through the book, it just didn’t feel that immediate to me. I was never worried for their lives.

There just seemed to be a lot of things that didn’t feel fully developed. I expected, from the very beginning, that the extra rooms would have more impact on the plot than just Julie getting stuck in one for a brief period of time. Not that I expected it to steal the plot from House of Leaves, but there’s plenty you can do with extra rooms without making it an endless house. Who was sleeping in the cot James found behind the wall? What was with the empty column next to their bedroom?

And in the end, I think I’m disappointed that we didn’t get anything approaching a reason. Was it haunted by Rolf’s family? Was someone’s body buried out back? Was Rolf’s family also haunted by the house? Where is Rolf?

For all the ways it fell short for me, I did really like the construction of the novel: the changing points of view, the close first person narration. Jemc does have a handle on the poetry of prose narration that I really found lovely at times. I just wish the end result had been more interesting.

Discussion questions: (as always, these are just conversation starters, you do not need to answer them to participate in discussion)

1. Will the haunting follow Julie and James after they sell the house, or do you believe they’re rid of it? Why do you think so?

2. It seemed that this was mostly Julie’s haunting. She was the one who lost the most time, who ended up with physical bruises. Why do you think that might be? Or am I wrong, did they manifest equally?

3. I clearly wasn’t swept away by the creepiness of the plot, but were you? What especially worked for you or didn’t?

10 Comments

  • Shara White October 27, 2017 at 10:47 am

    Merrin, I had a very similar reaction as you. I also basically read this in one sitting while traveling from Atlanta to St. Louis (so between airports, airplanes, and buses from the airport to the hotel; finished the final pages at the hotel). I found the writing to be absolutely gorgeous and very evocative, but the actual story… ?

    Like you, I wonder if I was missing something by not having to put the book down and come back to it later. Like you, I found myself seriously dissatisfied with the lack of resolution and answers. I don’t feel like things needed to be spelled out in black and white, per se, so much as I feel like I should’ve been given more, within the text, to come up with my own bone-chilling conclusions, and we just didn’t get enough to bring this story and its characters over the threshold into sheer horror (for me). All the individual pieces that were supposed to be scary didn’t really add up to anything.

    The questions:

    1) Actually, yes, I do. When they stayed at her friend’s, they were still owners of the house; but now they’re passing along the ownership; therefore passing along the haunting. I think the haunting is confined to the owners of the home, regardless of where those owners might be in the world. So if the home has new ownership, that just might be the way to free yourself. It also helps explain why they couldn’t find the previous realtor after they bought the house and suddenly had questions. The guy wanted the fuck out of there.

    2) They totally did not manifest equally. And honestly, given the few clues we get at end, I wonder: was this haunting a physical manifestation of the mental abuse she’d gone through and ignored when her husband was gambling (which triggered the move to begin with)? AND/OR was this book ultimately gaslighting the reader and it was just a weird house with weird shit and a weird neighbor but everything else…. was James just really abusive, and therefore an unreliable narrator? And was Julie unreliable as well, then? I can’t help but wonder if THAT’s what we’re supposed to take away from this book, that THAT is the real horror, not either’s attempts to blame shit on hauntings or supernatural or paranormal crap.

    3) Yeah, I guess I’ve already answered that one. I wasn’t. The writing, again, awesome, but I felt like I was missing something. It may be that I’m a little too steeped in horror and it takes a lot to get to me, maybe? At least I wasn’t comparing it to House of Leaves, which I lost patience with. Here, and especially in Julie’s sections, I felt like her descent happened a little too quickly, a little to suddenly, and it was a little too dreamlike for me, a very analytical person, to immerse myself in and experience with her.

    So yeah. Plot-wise, a miss unless this really is a tale of how a husband gaslights the shit out of his wife (or maybe how they gaslight each other?), in which case this book warrants re-reading. But writing-wise, Jemc is a writer I’d keep my eye on: I’d definitely give her books another go if the premise grabbed me.

    Reply
    • Merrin October 30, 2017 at 12:09 pm

      Jemc is a really pretty writer, I just didn’t feel like this had a lot of substance? It almost felt like reading someone’s fragmented story ideas on the back of a napkin. Though now I’m interested to go back and reread it (much, much later) with the idea of the entire haunting being a metaphor for their secrets. Also I just want to read House of Leaves again.

      Reply
      • Shara White October 30, 2017 at 1:50 pm

        I hear you on the much, much later bit. 🙂 How many times have you read House of Leaves?

        Reply
        • Merrin October 30, 2017 at 3:33 pm

          Twice, but the first one was while I was house sitting in a house that had lights that turned on automatically to make it look like people were home so it took me a while to be able to go back to it, ahahaha

          Reply
          • Shara White October 30, 2017 at 4:28 pm

            That would definitely give reading the book a unique experience!

  • Lane Robins October 27, 2017 at 11:09 am

    1. Like Shara, I think they’re rid of the haunting when they’re rid of the house. Whatever is happening in that house (And I think it’s centered on Rolf and his mysteriously deceased sister) seems to be confined to the house. Given the way these characters react to things (ignoring it until it absolutely can’t be ignored), I figure in a year or so, it’ll be just a bizarre, disquieting story in their past that they don’t talk about and mostly don’t think about.

    2. I feel like Julie’s problems were more noticeable, but I don’t know that that was because she was getting the lion’s share of the haunting. One of the most evocative moments for me in the book was when her friend came over and was all dismayed by the state of the house (stuff piled everywhere–echoing Rolf’s hoarding) and revealed that Julie wasn’t actually bathing herself. For me, that really suggested that we were only seeing the tip of the iceberg as to what was happening.

    3. Scary? Nope. I loved the language, but overall, I kind of felt like this book was a bit of a cheat. The only way to really find it satisfying, to piece together enough clues to figure out some sense of what had happened in the past, and what was happening now, was to use horror story tropes. This book really isn’t quite a stand-alone story: it’s built on a foundation of other (scarier, more resolved) haunting house stories. Merrin mentioned House of Leaves and I could see that–complete with the confusion of the house itself and the increasingly “mad” narrators. I could also see Barbara Michaels’ Ammie Come Home in here too–the twin houses, a mysterious death, the research into the past.

    In the end, I didn’t find it scary, but I really liked the dream-like quality of the writing, the way the scenes didn’t stick to a straight chronological line, but jumped, giving us random glimpses of the situation. I’m not sure how I feel about their marriage. James is self-centered and self-indulgent, and usually I’d be all for Julie to dump his butt–but I think she’s self-indulgent as well, just in the exact opposite way; he’s a gambler who gets bored and wanders away from his jobs. She’s a workaholic who is utterly insistent on things being perfect. So they felt kind of equally broken.

    I’d probably read another book by Jemc, just because I liked her writing, but I’d love a bit more actual plot.

    Reply
    • Merrin October 30, 2017 at 12:10 pm

      I liked the dream like quality of the writing but I wish the entire thing had added up to more, you know?

      Reply
  • Casey Price October 28, 2017 at 11:11 am

    1. I’m with everyone else – I don’t think that the “haunting” will follow this couple when they leave. I question whether or not this was indeed a proper haunted house. Aside from the incident that happened at the friend’s house, everything was contained. I do wonder at Jemc’s choice to have the couple deal with ergot poisoning. This makes everything that Julie and James relate to be entirely unreliable. Ergot poisoning causes some nasty things, per the great and all-knowing Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergotism#Salem_witchcraft_accusations So, perhaps James really did vandalize Connie’s home but doesn’t remember doing so? Either way, ownership of the home does seem to be tied to badness, so if they are able to move away, I believe the incidents (no matter the source) will stop.

    2. Julie definitely had the more intense experience as far as we are told. Both narrators are 100% unreliable, however, so perhaps there’s more happening? I could almost completely buy that their experiences were due to the aforementioned ergot poisoning. If Julie is also epileptic, she could be harming herself during seizures (even if these seizures weren’t the violent sort) and not knowing it, which could be the source of her mysterious bruising.

    3. I found the story off-putting, and somewhat horrifying, but not in the paranormal sense. The home and the experiences that the couple go through were metaphors for their damaged marriage. I think that this is what upset me the most. These two clearly have a lot of bad history and the problems all seemed to be illustrated in the house. The house is full of secret rooms — their marriage was filled with secrets. Julie becomes actually lost in the house at one point (she claims) — she’s consumed by the secrets that James kept from her. James finds a secret room with a cot and other items, hidden away behind basement walls — he lived (and continues to live) a secret life within the confines of his marriage. Julie can’t seem to get a clean drink of water later in the book — she is poisoned by her own resentment towards James and the problems that he caused and as such everything in her life is contaminated in some fashion.

    As far as Rolf and the children in the trees…I’m trying to recall if anybody ELSE knew the neighbor or even mentioned him. These parts are more creepy in retrospect than when they were happening during my reading of the novel.

    I find that I am more fascinated by this book now than I was while reading. I really want to go back and re-read it after my brain has had more time to consider it. I was initially a little put off by the stream of conscious style but upon my completion of this first reading, I am 100% on board with it. The style fit the story nicely. Jemc’s writing really is gorgeous and I look forward to reading more of her work.

    Reply
    • Shara White October 28, 2017 at 4:40 pm

      Casey, I love this. I think you definitely are spot-on with your interpretation and what the metaphors are suggesting. I think I was on the right track, and you hit the nail on the head: the horror of the story is what’s happening in the marriage, not some paranormal or haunting crap.

      Reply
    • Merrin October 30, 2017 at 12:08 pm

      Oh man yes you make some fascinating points about the metaphors of the secrets in their marriage. The neighbor was mentioned in the newspaper but I don’t recall anyone else talking to him or about him, and then he just disappeared eventually.

      Reply

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