To me, the classic, the ur haunted house story is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and if you have a taste for the classics of horror and you haven’t read that one yet, stop reading this and hurry to get your hands on it. A good haunted house story relies not on stupid people doing things that no sensible person would consider doing (the “don’t go into the basement!” syndrome), but on an atmosphere built up of details, each one slightly off, but together creating a sense of inescapable dread.
The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc, is a haunted house story that’s worthy of being compared to The Haunting of Hill House. It’s short, as a good horror story should be, and it’s creepy and disturbing and it’s an altogether engrossing read.
The two main characters, Julie and James, are a young married couple moving out of the city to get away from their problems, mostly James’ gambling. They go, as characters do in horror stories, to a place unfamiliar to them (though Julie’s friend from school, Connie, lives in the town and gets Julie a job with her company, so she’s not totally out on a stringer), in the hopes of making a new start. They buy a house at the end of a cul de sac, with dark woods encroaching on the edges of their lawn and the sea beyond the woods, and few neighbors.
Almost as soon as they move in, the house starts getting to them. The book is told in alternating chapters by Julie and James, and you have no trouble telling who is who. I’m usually not a fan of the alternating viewpoint technique, but it works in this case because you find yourself wondering which one of them is plugged in, if either one of them is, and the house has different effects on both of them, as well as on their relationship (though none of the effects is good).
It’s the little details that get to you: the strange extra spaces of the house itself, the children playing murder games in the woods (but there are no children living in the neighborhood), the strange sensation of someone breathing on the couple as they’re sleeping (an experience shared by Julie’s visiting parents, so this is not just Julie and James losing it), strange writing on the walls, a journal found with writing that nobody can read, and hints of terrible things that may or may not have happened in this house in the past. Then there are the bigger wrong things with the situation: the bruises that appear and grow on Julie’s body without any cause, the way the woods seem to move closer and closer to the house. Their nearest neighbor, Rolf, is the stuff of nightmares: he’s unfriendly but is staring at them all the time, things appear from his house in their house and vice versa, James and Julie separately find themselves in Rolf’s house when they think they’re in their own, and Rolf’s disappearance, which brings the skeptical police into the orbit of the main characters.
If you’re the kind of person who wants to have everything explained by the end, this is not a book for you. There is no easy explanation of what happened to the house, who Rolf was, why Julie and James were affected this way. There are hints, though, and I personally find the suggestion of something terrible more frightening, more emotionally upsetting, than pages and pages of backstory “explaining” the otherwise inexplicable.
The Grip of It isn’t for everybody, but if you’re in the mood for a nice creepy haunted house story you won’t soon forget, give it a read. You won’t be disappointed.