The Grip If It by Jac Jemc

Feels like: Seeing something out of the corner of your eye, but it’s just a hat rack. Wait, you don’t have a hat rack.

Song pairing:  “Saturn” by Sufjan Stevens

Meet James and Julie. They live in the city, work semi-professional jobs, and are married for a blip before James’ gambling addiction drains him of his savings and leaves Julie feeling frustrated and alone. James and Julie decide that moving out of the city will solve their trust issues; James will be out of the path of impulsive temptations, while Julie will feel more in control of their surroundings and their future.

They settle into a two-story house which sits between a lake and the forest, in a small town just outside the city. They ignore the subtle heaviness in the air, the strange scents, the odd discolorations in the walls. They ignore the instances of vases moving, the strange old man next door who silently stares at them from his living room window, the speculative children in the forest who sit in the trees and play games called Murder. But eventually they can’t ignore the painted faces on the walls, the bruises growing like purple blossoms across Julie’s back, the soiled, hot breath inches from their necks while they’re sleeping. Their escape from marital issues becomes a suffocating descent into mutual madness.

Seeing as how I’m currently in the position of looking for homes to purchase with Josh, this book rang threatening to me on a very visceral level. This novel is the literary embodiment of that unnerving sixth sense; the feeling of someone looking at you from behind your back, but you turn and no one is there. The eerie, palpable presence of something unexplainable drives the novel forward to its dizzying finale. By the end of the short but succinct novel, the author has written us a dozen riddles and left the pieces scattered along the way, allowing us to fit them into whatever picture we decide.

My favorite motif has got to be the masks. The way Jemc uses masks to emulate how we represent ourselves to the outside world, in relationships, at work, is actually very artful. You’d think the use of masks would be a literary cliche, but she’s subtle and transparent about its use, allowing the thematic symbols to soak into our periphery rather than wringing them dry.

There’s a scene I still can’t get out of my head, where James walks down the hallway and spies his wife sitting on the edge of the guest bed in a dark room wearing an old Mardi Gras mask that usually hangs on the wall for decoration. He asks her “What’re you doing in there?” and she responds in a whisper, “Nothing.” As he continues to the end of the hall and into their bedroom, he startles to see his wife in bed, tucked in, book in hand, asking “What am I doing in where?” There’s something so much more horrifying imagining that scene behind my eyes than seeing it visually represented in a horror movie. It immediately gave me the chills and stayed with me far longer than I wanted.

Maybe because it urges us to think beyond the thin veil of our fear to what we’re actually scared of–what’s behind the mask? Who did you marry? Who are you underneath your own veneer? And how will you handle it when the world you thought was completely planned starts to veer down an unfamiliar road, into territory that forces us to address who we actually are versus what we have decided we are?

Memorable quotes:

☠️”But then I feel it, like a dark, dark poem: how it enters the room. It displaces the air. I shut my eyes. Dark, dark, pressing down, invisible but moving, moving the air like hot breath.” ☠️
💀”Guilt is seldom felt by the guilty.” 💀

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