Purchase The Grip Of It: A Novel here.
My dear unknown friend,
I have a confession to make. I strongly believe the most “Lovecraftian” of works never bear any of the signifiers people have come to associate with the genre. If I see any such symbols attached to a work, be it the words “Cthulhu” or “Necronomicon” in the title or tentacles in the artwork my first thought is, “Right then, you’ve failed. Next.” Or take the widely accepted presentation of Cthulhu as a dragon with an octopus head. This was not Lovecraft’s description of the idol, yet people miss the nuance of the description, stick an octopus head on a dragon, call it good. Go back, read the story once again and you’ll see Lovecraft using these as touchstones for something more, something beyond, and to literally place an octopus head upon a dragon’s body yields the ludicrous results we are assailed with today. Seen as a literal interpretation it reminds one of a medieval engraver’s comical attempt at rendering a hippopotamus based solely on the descriptions of returning adventurers. Taken literally it is ludicrous, yet when one reads the original description once again where Lovecraft writes:
“If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing… but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.”*
Lovecraft’s skill with the use of allusive language allows him to point to something that hovers on the edges of comprehension, nearly beyond our ken and this, not the desire to be scared out of our wits, is one of the main draws of Lovecraft’s stories. Lovecraft knew this because as he himself wrote, he would never understand,
“how your imagination can fail to react to these mysterious abysses; how you can escape the burning curiosity of a child at a nearly-closed door through whose crevice come sounds of strange and unearthly wonder, and fragments of sights that suggest unthinkable things.”**
To use the now common words “Cthulhu” and “Necronomicon”, visual symbols such as tentacles, fish gills and fog shrouded turn of the century fishing villages does the exact opposite. It reassures the audience, places them within familiar territory wherein they understand the whys and wherefores and thus strips all ambiguity from the situation. In short, they got this, shovel in the product.
Which is why I feel the works that carry on the tradition of weird fiction most ably have no such signifiers yet evoke feelings of awe and foreboding. The finest example of a novel that as of late has caused this sense of wonder and wrongness, forced me to stop more than once and had me saying, “No, you go f@*% yourself,” was Jac Jemc’s The Grip Of It: A Novel. This book burrowed under my skin and refused to let go. I am of course predisposed towards haunted house novels. The Haunting of Hill House, The Elementals, House of Leaves, all sit dog-eared and with cracked spines upon my bookshelves. Haunted houses resonate because home is where one goes to rest, to shield oneself from the world and if this is the source of one’s woes then this does not bode well at all.
First of all with The Grip Of It: A Novel there is the language. Jac Jemc’s writing is so beautiful it hurts. If you have a friend or loved one that you can not persuade to read horror (or weird fiction or literary horror, whatever you cats are calling it these days) yet they adore fine writing, gift them this novel. It will convert them. Jac Jemc dazzles with hallucinatory prose that begs to be read aloud. Several dozen times I interrupted my wife’s day with the words, “Let me read you this one paragraph,” only to end up reading the entire chapter. Such is the strength and power of Jemc’s writing that my wife did not grow frustrated with these interruptions but frequently responded with, “That was beautiful.”
However Jemc never becomes enraptured with displaying her own technical skill. The book moves briskly, shorts chapters alternating viewpoints between a married couple, James and Julie that have purchased a new home in a small quiet town to remove James from the city that buttressed his hidden gambling addiction. From the beginning one can see the fault lines in their relationship and one of most harrowing aspects of The Grip Of It: A Novel is watching the effects that the haunting places upon James’ and Julie’s relationship. The one thing my wife did grow exasperated with during my reading of this novel was my continual asking, “We’re good right? Me and you? We’re doing okay?” This novel had me talking to my tablet like my grandmother used to yell at her television set. I knew I was doing so, I could observe myself doing it yet I was powerless to stop. Such is the power of The Grip Of It: A Novel.
When they are first shown the house James and Julie are delighted to be told that it contains several hidden compartments and cubby holes. Some people muse that they were built to hide contraband during Prohibition. They are less delighted by the elderly neighbor who spends hours staring out his windows into theirs. Or the strange low humming that fills the house at odd intervals. The trees from the surrounding forest seem to encroach closer on a daily basis and the gangs of young children that play games within their branches are frequently heard yet rarely seen and they never seem to return home as night falls.
Jemc has a keen insight into human behavior and the finesse to encapsulate those insights compactly with elegance and flair. Even her minor characters not only ring true but offer sage observations that sound honest to the ear. This deepens the attachment one feels towards these characters. This does not necessarily mean that we like the character in question but we understand and sympathize with their motivations. When I read that The Grip Of It: A Novel took four years to write or read Jemc’s blog where she catalogs each story rejection she receives I found myself nodding. Her writing conveys the easy grace and simplicity achieved through years of work, sweat and toil that causes onlookers everywhere to say, “Well that looks easy, betcha I could do that,” after watching a championship athlete or performer at work.
In closing let me say this. Though I originally read The Grip Of It: A Novel on my tablet I have already ordered a physical copy so it may sit on my shelf alongside The Haunting of Hill House, The Elementals, and House of Leaves. I am sure I shall return to its slim, hallucinatory charms repeatedly over the years to come. I could fill thousands of words as to why I believe it fills the definition of weird fiction as defined by Mark Fisher in The Weird and The Eerie and hits all of the highlights that Graham Harman writes about in Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy but I would rather those surprises and marvels be left for you to discover. It’s dreadfully marvelous.
Soundtrack for this review:
*Please see Graham Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy esp the chap “Not Unfaithful to the Spirit of the Thing” for a much clearer and much more enjoyable expounding upon this topic. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Or any volume from Zero Books for that matter.
** Lovecraft’s Selected Letters vol 1, Arkham House, 1976, pg. 116
Purchase The Grip Of It: A Novel here.
This review by Acep Hale.
I just finished House of Leaves. This sounds like a good next read.