It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see how a person who was obsessed with A Nightmare on Elm Street as a five-year-old could end up writing a haunted house novel years later. Jac Jemc’s love of horror was instilled at a very young age.
“I still like being scared, even beyond the realm of reading or watching a story that’s scary to me,” Jemc says. “I like the feeling of being alone in a big house in the woods, and freaking myself out.” Not long ago, she stayed in a huge manor house in Denmark for a writing residency.
“At night, I had to go all the way from one wing of the house to another to get a glass of water,” Jemc says. “It was so easy to get scared [during that walk.] But it was great! I loved it!”
In Jemc’s latest novel, The Grip of It, a young couple named James and Julie are haunted by their relationship and themselves, just as much as external forces. James has a gambling problem, and buying a house is a chance at a fresh start. But after they move into their new home, an atmosphere of the uncanny sets in; the woods seem to grow closer to the house, and rooms appear out of nowhere. Mysterious bruises show up on Julie’s body.
The Grip of It is the literary love child of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Jemc had Jackson’s famous novel in her head as she worked on her latest book, because she is intrigued by things that go unsaid and “what people avoid talking about.” She also read The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, This House Is Haunted by John Boyne, and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. While some writers are afraid of other voices influencing their own, Jemc loves to read while she’s working on a book. “I want my work to change and bend.”
But one thing stays the same, no matter what she writes.
“The theme I keep returning to in my work is no matter how well you know a person, there’s always this gap between what you think about yourself and what they know about you,” Jemc says. “The closer you get to a person, that gap can feel wider and wider.”
The Chicago-based writer is the author of several books, including My Only Wife and A Different Bed Every Time. This fall, she’s teaching creative writing at Illinois Wesleyan University. Jemc got her start being published by small presses, Dzanc Books and Greying Ghost Press. In an era when so many people use their online platforms to share their accomplishments, Jemc offers a welcome alternative. Since 2008, she has posted her rejections in a very public way, on her own website. “For the most part, it’s kind of a numbers game,” she says. “If you put yourself out there enough times, at some point you’ll start hearing yeses back.” That transparency is refreshing, and proof that persistence can pay off. The important thing, Jemc says, is to not “get bogged down by rejection.”
Fear dwells and grows in the unknown, and that’s something Jemc explores in her book. How are we supposed to go about living our lives when there’s so much uncertainty and deception in the world? And if we can’t completely trust our partners, how can we trust ourselves? The longer James and Julie stay in the house, the harder it is to make sense of themselves, and that confusion seeps into their surroundings. Even everyday objects lose their meaning. “Everything I see in our house looks as if it had been replaced with a replica,” Julie says.
Jemc alternates from the point of view of the husband and the wife, making it easy for the reader to feel like they side with one character and then, just as quickly, feel sympathy for the other. Whom can you trust in a novel that is built around the disintegration of trust?
“Because their relationship is becoming destabilized, everything around them seems unusual as well,” Jemc says. “They no longer have each other as this failsafe, as this touch point, where you can always count on what it is you’ll be getting from the other person.”
That’s one way to explain why their house is so unnerving — but it could be more than that, too. It’s up to the reader to decide. What’s more frightening: the supernatural or the natural world? It’s difficult to say. But what makes this book especially frightening — and pleasurably disorienting — is how the haunting continues even when they leave the confines of their home.
“If things are really falling apart between James and Julie, then it’s not only going to happen in their house, it’s going to happen wherever they are,” Jemc insists. “Nature is alive and changing all the time, and so we have these things that we think we understand about how the world works, but those things aren’t necessarily reliable.”
“The inability to trust ourselves is the most menacing danger,” James states halfway through the novel. “I fear what we could find there. I fear what we won’t.”
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