The Grip of It is an intensely unnerving book about everyday horrors made manifest in a haunted-house fever dream.
James and Julie are young urbanites who move to an old house in a small town, hoping the change of scenery will save their crumbling marriage. Away from the city, they believe, James will overcome his gambling addiction, Julie will move past her resentment of him, and they will restore the connection that brought them together in the first place. In the process, they plan to become the type of people they assume are happy: those who move at a slower pace, who get to know their neighbors, who patronize the local mom & pop establishments, who ensconce themselves in the charms of small-town life.
This endeavor neither begins nor ends well.
The book opens with a realtor showing off the property that will become James and Julie's new home, constantly drawing their attention to - and then dismissing - the strange buzzing noise that permeates the structure: "That's just the house settling." But the sound (moaning... like an incantation, some sort of ritual snarl) follows James and Julie everywhere they go, as does the strange grimy waterstain on the basement wall, the ominous drawings and unreadable superimposed script that appear throughout the house, and the myriad secret rooms and passages that keep revealing themselves - and then vanishing.
Even outside their (clearly haunted) house, none of James and Julie's plans seem willing to materialize. The local businesses refuse to serve them. The townspeople gossip about their home's tragic (but conflicting) history. The elderly next-door neighbor stares menacingly at them through the windows. Their jobs fall apart. Their friendships sour.
Various explanations for the couple's troubles are offered throughout the book, from sterile medical diagnoses to gaslighting abusers to festering restless spirits. None of these really fits the evidence, which remains elusive and contradictory and totally inexplicable. And yet there was always this sense of familiarity as I was reading this book, this prickly feeling of impending doom that I have experienced when suppressing destabilizing truths that I was not yet ready to accept.
The novel’s title hints at how ominous it is - to be trapped in the thrall of this thing that you are not willing to name or describe. You resolve to ignore it, hoping that by sheer will you'll be able to continue your ordinary life, maintain a job, a relationship, friends, and hobbies. But it doggedly manifests itself - on your body, in your dreams, on the walls, in the neighbors' faces, in the droning, moaning sound at the limit of your hearing.
The opening paragraph describes this feeling perfectly:
Maybe we move in and we don't hear the intonation for a few days. Maybe we hear it as soon as we unlock the door. Maybe we drag our friends and family into the house and ask them to hear it and they look into the distance and listen as we try to describe it and fail. "You don't hear it? It's like a mouth harp. Deep twang. Like throat singing. Ancient. Glottal. Resonant. Husky and rasping, but underwater." Alone in the house, though, we become less aware of it, like a persistent, dull headache. Deaf to the sound, until the silence of ownership settles over us. Maybe we decide we will try to like the noise. Maybe we find comfort in it. Maybe an idea insists itself more easily than an action.
This, of course, will never work. Choosing to ignore or embrace the warning bells clanging in the back of your mind will not make them go away. Will not stabilize a situation you know is untenable. Will not conquer an unacceptable reality. Pretty soon, you’ll start spiraling out of control the way Julie and James do in this book.
It's not the house settling. I promise you, it's something worse.