Haunted houses are a staple of weird fiction. From Gothic castles to the abandoned house on swampland lampooned in Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids, fantastic fiction has much to say about uncanny dwellings. Jac Jemc’s gripping novel The Grip of It belongs to this genre.
With an MFA from Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, Jemc has enjoyed deserved success as a writer of weird fiction. The Grip of It, her third major publication, was praised by many reviewers and widely recommended, with favorable notices in Entertainment Weekly, O, Marie Claire, Esquire, and other popular magazines. Her most recent book, the short story collection False Bingo won the Chicago Review of Books Award for fiction, and a new novel is expected next year.
For the sake of time, our tour of the haunted house scenario in English literature will visit a single location before supplying the reader with a map. We begin at Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). Walpole’s approach to the weird tale is ingeniously simple. He invents a manuscript, supposedly printed in Naples 236 years earlier, in 1529. He offers his “translation.” The weirdness is generated by juxtaposing three perspectives.
The first is supplied by the story’s protagonists, sincere if passionate rationalists engaged in a family drama involving love and inheritance. They are, as Walpole explains in the preface, those Renaissance forefathers whose letters “contributed to dispel the empire of superstition.” The second perspective is supplied by their servants, who still believe in the supernatural. (As Walpole explains in his second preface, the “deportment of the domestics” is central to his project.) In alternating scenes, the nobility and domestics encounter “supernatural” events, nearly all of which turn out to have natural causes. (Walpole’s model is Shakespeare; elements of Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dream are particularly evident). But the drama begins with an impossible event–a giant helmet falls out of the sky, crushing the heir of Otranto’s fortune. The nobility are baffled, but they must accept the object’s stubborn materiality, which is emphasized. They set out to determine the meaning of this impossible thing, while reprimanding the domestics for their foolish beliefs.
The third perspective is that of the readers, who are asked to read the text with skepticism. By presenting the text as a “hoax” (whether or not that deceit is believed makes no difference), Walpole invites us to scrutinize the style and substance closely, allowing it to test our sense of plausibility. In the preface, Walpole pretends to apologize for the text’s “air of the miraculous.” He predicts that we may try to excuse the impossible things that it purports to describe as symptoms of the “original” writer’s style or intentions–then challenges our ability to do this. He asks us to observe that the story’s style is not poetic or allegorical. On the contrary, his “translation” brings before the public a text from Renaissance Italy written in a surprisingly modern style. He begs us to observe how “Every thing tends directly to the catastrophe.” There is no ornament, no flights of fancy. The naturalistic details provided by our narrator embed him with the rationalists. (“My rule was nature,” Walpole will later confess.)
This leaves us, the readers, in the position of the domestics–if we read past chapter one, we have already, at least tacitly, accepted the miraculous event. In short, the “empire of superstition” continues; the age of reason has not extinguished our capacity to accept the impossible. This is Walpole’s satire on the reading public, which is also born out by the novel’s sardonic tone.
Over the centuries, writers have invented innumerable combinations of Walpole’s key ingredients. In all of the weirdest stories, we find a built environment (a house, castle, hotel, etc.), rational and irrational inhabitants, and an unreliable record of the impossible event. While the Victorians wrote some excellent haunted house stories (see The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert), I’d argue that the most memorable houses were explored by writers confronting the modernist restructuring of space, time, and subjectivity. Consider this cluster of weird stories that foreground the uncanny atmosphere of rooms, apartments, estates, and cathedrals: Henry James’s “The Ghostly Rental” (1876), “The Turn of the Screw” (1898), and “The Jolly Corner” (1908); Ambrose Bierce’s “The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch” (1891); Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892); M.R. James’s “Canon Albric’s Scrapbook” (1894), “Lost Hearts” (1895), “Number 13” (1904), “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” (1910), and “A View from a Hill” (1925); Madeline Yale Wynn’s “The Little Room” (1895); Emma Francis Dawson’s “An Itinerant House” (1897); Edith Wharton’s “The Lady Maid’s Bell” (1902), “Afterward” (1910), “Bewitched” (1926), and “Mr Jones” (1929); Algernon Blackwood’s “The Listener” (1907) and “The Empty House” (1907); Walter De la Mare’s “Out of the Deep” (1920); H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” (1924), “The Shunned House” (written in 1924), and “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932). These stories may be seen as variations on Walpole’s formula. For example, in “The Yellow Wall Paper” the rationalist is played by John, the narrator’s husband, the “superstitious domestic” is played by the narrator, and the textual ambivalence is evoked by pretending that the text is her diary. As Gilman’s story remind us, the modernist fascination with Freudian psychology and William James’s “stream of consciousness” led them to evoke uncanny sensations by creating hysterical and neurotic narratives. The ultimate expression of the modernist haunted house is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which also includes elements of postmodern pastiche.
The postmodern haunted house story begins with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast (1950), which takes The Castle of Otranto in a different direction, abandoning the hoax and the modernist psyche in favor of a more direct confrontation between the reader and the impossible thing. The text does not pretend to be a translation, diary, or hysterical account; instead, the style makes it seem otherworldly. It is nearly impossible to determine, sentence by sentence, where the novel’s realism ends and its allegory begins. Just as Walpole asks his readers to do, we struggle to determine what, if anything, constitutes the “real” of the world it purports to disclose. Other haunted places that are weird in this postmodern way may be found in Ray Russell’s “Sardonicus” (1959) and George Saunders’ “Civil War Land in Bad Decline” (1992). Since the 1960s, haunted dwellings have organized popular and critically acclaimed stories that use a variety of these methods. While the Gothic formula remains (e.g., Stephen King’s The Shining (1977)), the most interesting contemporary stories revisit modernist techniques. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) strike me as the most valuable.
All of this prepares us to get into The Grip of It, for this novel offers a thoughtful and original variation on the haunted house tale. Jemc’s novel satirizes the middleclass dream of home ownership while providing a simple, effective twist to the formula. At some unspecified time after the foreclosure crisis, Julie and James, young, white, college educated, middleclass, in love, and with a taste for the Gothic, invest in a “big and Victorian” house at the “end of a cul-de-sac” as far from the city as employment opportunities allow them to go. Their story is told in alternating first-person narratives. Already Jemc’s variation can be discerned. The roles of rationalist and domestic are played alternately by Julie and James. The unreliable narrative and gender dynamics introduced by Gilman are in play, but ownership of the discourse and power in the relationship (and world) are equally distributed between the male and female characters. Inasmuch as the terms “unreliable” and “engendered” are nearly interchangeable when applied to literary narratives (from Tristram Shandy’s accidental circumcision onwards, the unreliable narrator repeats an Oedipal drama), Jemc’s originality stems from narrative transsexuality. Whereas “The Yellow Wallpaper” or “The Jolly Corner” bring us almost completely into the reality experienced by a single, obsessed subject, The Grip of It toggles between two equally rational/hysterical subjects. The narrative is easily shared by these characters because Julie and James are almost identical. They share ownership of the house and enjoy equal liberty of movement and access to the labor market. They attempt to be equal partners in their relationship. Most importantly, their narrative styles are nearly the same. Each has their own secrets and fears, but they inhabit the same discursive terrain (a terse, sometimes bland post-Hemingway prose style that is entirely normal). Being equally (un)reliable, they alternately support and resist each other’s encounters with the house’s weird features. They lose their grasps on reality in different ways, growing apart as they succumb to their new house’s strangeness, but the “hesitation” they experience is not attributed to sexual difference, as it is in the modernist stories.
In the early chapters, Jemc’s novel develops a theme that occurs in many haunted house stories: the pleasures and perils of homemaking for a “normal” couple. (At one point, Julie and her friend Connie toast Julie’s decision to live in “Normal Town.”) No doubt, contemporary versions of these tropes owe much to Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror (1977), a “true crime” novel that, like the film franchise it inspired, focuses on the efforts of middleclass white newlyweds to make their new house a home. Edith Wharton’s “Afterward” begins with a similar premise. In these stories, as in Jemc’s novel, realism is established around the feelings associated with taking possession of a big, old house that, of course, comes with a history of its own. Importantly, both members of the couple bring their own emotional baggage. They negotiate their relationship while sharing the house as a “project.” The alternating narratives allow Jemc to develop these scenes in detail; we witness a series of “nonevents”–moments when something is overlooked or isn’t mentioned. Here is Julie:
“What’s up?” James says, without lifting his eyes.
“We’re missing a pot.” I glance around, counting again.
“Probably got packed in a different box.”
“That would be an entirely reasonable theory if I didn’t remember feeling so proud that I’d fit them all into two perfectly sized boxes.”
James rolls his eyes and I know why; because this is precisely a thing that would bring me joy, boring to anyone else, but thrillingly efficient to me. (15)
Julie and James find themselves in the other’s gaze, as Julie does in this passage. She knows that James knows her quirks, and this allows her to set aside her observation of the missing pot. Their unpacking, exploring, and fixing up of the place is related on an almost daily basis, allowing many little oddities to accrue. There are noises and stains, strange rooms and queer neighbors. As Julie or James or both discover the weird pattern, they tend to hide their sense of the uncanny, functioning as each other’s object cause of repression. This begins, subtly, to put a strain on their relationship, which anxiety they both also conceal. The first moment when they “come clean,” confessing their suspicions and clearing the air, is narrated by James. Over dinner, they discuss trivial matters, each hiding their own secrets. Julie breaks first, blurting out that she has discovered what she believes is a grave in the backyard. James accompanies her outside. She shows him “a plot of stale dirt lined on one side with rocks.” James is unimpressed by the grave, but not with Julie. Standing beside her, he feels “all the love I possibly can for her” and “remind[s]” himself “not to kiss her.” When she asks him to reciprocate, by telling her what he has been withholding, he does:
I know that I owe it to her to be honest and share my worry, too, though. I tell her about the children in the trees. I tell her how they call to each other. They hunt for a murderer.
Julie acts as if this is less concerning. “That’s just kids playing.”
I feel hurt for taking her seriously and being dismissed myself. This is how she copes, though. “You’re right,” I say. I’m proud of her for not taking this trouble on. I try to believe. I think of the bartender’s stories and keep them to myself. (33)
Of course, James has not been taking Julie any more seriously than she takes him. He just made a statement about the grave that was equally dismissive. Hurt by her apparently casual dismissal, he refuses to share a strange rumor about the house, telling himself that he is protecting her. As the book continues, they continue to disavow and ignore “the problem,” which increasingly becomes a matter of trust and sharing, while independently pursing the other “problem”–the strange events that occur in and around the house, and the ominous stories told about its former inhabitants. As Julie says at one point, “I might tell James or I might not. I start to lose track of what I’ve shared with him and what I’ve kept to myself” (65). The dual-narrative filtering of the uncanny events effectively combines the drama between rational and irrational subjects with the drama between the humans, their house, and the supernatural.
The latter remains offstage, but as stories about the house begin to surface and the characters experience increasingly powerful dreams and delusions, a creepiness begins to emerge. The “checkout lady” tells Julie that a previous owner just disappeared. “They searched the whole house. They waited. Eventually the house went into foreclosure…” (49) At the local library, Julie finds records of a tragedy (the death of a child) at their neighbor’s house, and upon further surveillance he does appear melancholic, perhaps obsessive. At one point they suspect him of entering their house while they are away. The house itself can’t be found on any maps. These “objective” oddities are conventional and tend to lack the details necessary to generate an atmosphere of uncanny locality. (Such an atmosphere is handled far more ingeniously by Shirley Jackson in “The Summer People,” for example.)
By contrast, the delusions that our protagonists suffer are far more elegantly and effectively deployed. By juxtaposing perspectives, Jemc prevents us from being able to determine whether certain occurrences “really happened” or were hallucinations. One of my favorite examples unfolds in this way:
James is at work when he gets a series of text messages from Julie. He ignores them. Then “at 4:59, the message changes: ‘For real. I need help.'” James calls her. “She is silent for a long time. ‘I’m stuck in some room of the house. I don’t know how to get out'” (98). As James rushes home, we cut to Julie’s narrative:
I hear the door slam, feel the reverberations. When I dial James’s phone, the call goes straight to voice mail. I crouch down to see if there’s a lip between the floor and the wall to grab and shove out, but instead I find a book, leatherbound and wedged thick with loose pages. The room seems to pull in closer, and I panic, wondering if I’ll be crushed, then suddenly the wall behind me slides to one side on its own, and light floods in and I am in our bedroom, and I push through the crack quickly, and I look at where I’ve been and it’s just another space we don’t know, a narrow closet, and I examine how the wall works and slide it back, trying not to close it completely, but it clicks into place and then I can’t seem to budge it open again. [. . .] James comes into the room, screaming for me, then quieting down when he sees that I am right here.” (99-100).
I like this sequence because of what it doesn’t include. There is no account of Julie discovering this impossible closet; all we are given are the few sentence above. And when James enters the room, Julie is on the bed, sounding very slightly incoherent. When he asks “What happened?” she says “There’s a room behind that wall, but it’s gone now” (100). Was it a dream? This uncertainty or “hesitation” is weird fiction’s contribution to the haunted house narrative, and Jemc’s novel provides many fine instances of it.
I won’t give away the ending. I didn’t see it coming. It provides a sufficient if slightly disappointing conclusion, and in the meantime, our protagonists’ descent into the maelstrom of hallucination and conspiracy made this book hard to put down.
In conclusion, I want to return to the dual-narrative structure. At least since Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868), multiple narrators have been used to elaborate a ghostly mystery (the same effect, of course, can be achieved by epistolary narratives, such as Shelley’s in Frankenstein (1818) or Bram Stoker’s in Dracula (1897)). But all previous stories that I know of emphasize the difference between narrative perspectives; Jemc’s novel emphasizes their similarity. For Julie and James, gender equality is a mutual aspiration; maintaining it is their shared goal. Efforts to resolve the atmosphere of suspicion that envelops them as the house undermines their confidence in themselves and each other drive the novel’s sentimental drama. As manifested in their nearly interchangeable narrative styles, this feature contributes to Jemc’s satire of the suburban subject. In their aspiration to enter “Normal Town,” J and J make themselves interchangeable. They hide their quirks from each other and from their friends and coworkers. As white middleclass consumers, their desires are superficial and ordinary.
But there is another context in which to read the alternating but similar narrative sequences: the found footage film. Found footage narrative cinema has exploded since The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007) demonstrated the capacity of this conceit to turn independently made films into blockbusters. Although generally classified as comedy or horror, narrative based found footage films are particularly good at generating weirdness, uncertainty, and dread (rather than shock, terror, or revulsion). In a few of the best films, two or more cameras are involved in the diagetic story (which usually involves amateur film makers discovering something they shouldn’t). There are wonderfully uncanny moments that occur when the viewer is unsure who is operating the camera or when different cameras record an uncanny event from various perspectives. (See for example, Hollow (2011), Creep (2014), and Hell House LLC (2015), three of the best films to use this particular conceit.) I can’t help but notice how much Jemc’s novel feels like these films. Although the narratives reveal the inner lives of the protagonists, because Julie and James share a sensibility the movement between chapters often feels like a jump cut between cameras. Cameras may be differently positioned in space and time, but they are equally objective. The difference in perspective is material, not sentimental. A similar sense of worldly being operates in Jemc’s novel. If someone put me in charge of adapting the novel, I would argue against a found footage treatment of it, but I can see the temptation because the characters are more distinguished by what they witness (or hallucinate) than by individualized personalities.
NEXT TIME: We take another little detour from the program of 10 weird fiction reviews to discuss Gareth R. Miles’ Soul Shakedown (2020), a “metaphysical adventure” that may be the first work of speculative fiction written in Guyanese dialect.