Authors love to write haunted house novels because they’re all symbolism, and symbolism is fun to write. Why labor over a Cheeveresque, subtle examination of a typically unhappy suburban family when you can just have blood literally pouring from the walls of their home? The haunted house story combines America’s top three love affairs — real estate, dysfunctional families, and karmic retribution — into one sloppy orgy.
But the problem with haunted house stories is that they’ve been done so often that it’s almost impossible to add something new to the form. How many creepy children’s laughs can emanate from an empty closet before the genre is officially announced dead?
Yes, Chicago writer Jac Jemc’s new book, The Grip of It, is another haunted house novel. And it does contain most of the tropes of the genre: a young couple, Julie and James, moves into a house with a questionable history. Things start going awry, but the couple doesn’t believe the evidence they’re seeing with their own eyes. They recognize the malevolence too late, and they vow to fight it somehow. Along the way, the reader discovers that Julie and James are wrestling with some dark moments in their history.
Because it all feels so familiar, you might have to muster some energy to take a chance and pick up Grip. But once you do, you’ll likely fall hard for it — the way that I did. Speaking as someone who’s been having trouble reading fiction lately, I whipped through Grip with the energy and enthusiasm of someone watching Kubrick’s The Shining for the first time. It’s a fantastic — and genuinely scary — play on a story that’s been repeated to the point of devaluation.
Part of Grip’s appeal is in the book’s structure. It’s built as a literal he said/she said, with James and Julie alternating chapters. There are enough little discrepancies and withholding of truths between the two stories to identify both sides as unreliable narrators. (It helps, too, that the chapters mostly average around three pages per, giving each tiny segment the snackability of a big bowl of popcorn. It’s easier to keep turning the pages than it is to put the book down and go to sleep for the night.)
The foundations of Julie and James’s relationship are seriously cracked. When Julie casually mentions that she wants to “think of the house as an investment” so that “this money will all come back to us in time,” James retorts:
”Julie, we just moved in. You’re already thinking of when we’ll leave?” I have also already wondered about when we might move on, about what might prompt such a decision. Would it be the grave or that noise or old age and an inability to keep up with the demands of a home that size? But thinking about the house as an investment that we’d cash in on is not one of the ways I’d considered it.
But soon the house starts exacting its own costs out of the people living in it. Julie’s body becomes covered in mysterious bruises, and anyone who sees them can’t help but wonder If James is abusing her. The walls of the house are suddenly marked with crudely drawn faces. An elderly neighbor has disappeared.
There are so many situations that the hauntings in Grip could be representing: The helplessness of average Americans in the current housing boom, in which a parade of people who profit from your confusion explain to you that the market demands that you pay a hundred thousand dollars more than you would have last year. It might stand for the unsettling realization that none of us know who our neighbors truly are. It might ratchet the horror up even further by reminding readers that ultimately none of us know who our spouses are. It could represent the confusion and psychological terror enacted in an abusive relationship over the course of years and decades.
But a rampage of mysterious symbolism is not reason enough to read a haunted house book. The most compelling thing about Grip for me — besides its excellent title, which furthers any number of potential theories about the true nature of the haunting in the book — is Jemc’s blunt prose, which works best in her short-but-twisty sentences. “I usually love the dark, but on this night, it is not my friend and it feels like a punishment to be forced to sit in the pitch and stare,” Julie explains. The idea of night being anyone’s friend is a compelling one, but the idea of being betrayed and punished by the night is even more imposing. The way the sentence ends with staring into the dark leaves the reader in a beautifully confused state, just like Julie.
Part of the reason why every haunted house story hinges on a dark secret in the protagonist family’s past is because you can’t just write a story where a bunch of ghosts victimize innocent human beings. The family must be implicit in the torment somehow. They have to earn the torture, or else we're all just creeps salivating over the torment of others. The characters have to learn an Important Life Lesson that they can pass on to readers, or — if their sin is great enough — they have to die in order to atone for their wretched pasts.
The ending of the haunted house story in Grip is basically the most obvious solution for a haunted house story. But Jemc sells it with a passion that frequent horror-readers will likely find brilliant: James and Julie make a decision that will have enormous consequences, and that decision is very clearly a moral choice. Everything they do flows into and builds from the decision they make. In a book full of mysterious happenings and astral events, their decision is concrete and would work just as well in a literary novel as it would in a book as devoted to genre as this one.
Grip has fangs and talons. It sinks into your skin, and the pain changes the way you view everything around you. Even if you’re exhausted by haunted house stories, you’ll likely find yourself enthusiastically lost in the winding hallways and intentional dead-ends of Jemc's prose. Like Julie and James investigating the house, readers will continue to find hidden passages and secret peepholes and familiar ghosts hiding inside the book. It will likely haunt your days and nights for weeks to come.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant