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Jac Jemc’s Terrifying Southern Connections

The Grip Of It author talks kudzu, haunted houses and women writing horror.

Author Jac Jemc was set to be in Louisiana recently for the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. The annual festival was canceled due to Covid 19, but we interviewed Jemc by email in advance to ask her about the haunted city. She said she was in New Orleans last year for vacation and went on both a cemetery and a ghost tour. “I adopted a cat and brought it home, so New Orleans is already very special to me,” she adds. “The history of New Orleans and the mood of the place are so perfectly spooky, even in moments of joy.”

Jemc, who teaches creative writing at UC San Diego, could certainly be called an expert on what’s spooky. Her 2017 novel The Grip Of It is about a young couple being haunted by their new home. The architecture is filled with hidden rooms, stains map themselves onto wife Julie’s body in the form of bruises and mold spores taint the water. Her latest work, a short story collection titled False Bingo, has sinister forces working their way into the mundanity of everyday life.

If you were looking forward to seeing Jemc in New Orleans, you can still get to know her in our interview and look forward to her next novel in 2022.

Erin Z. Bass: I was doing some research on your past and forthcoming work and found the story “Kudzu.” The vine is, of course, something Southerners are very familiar with. What inspired the story and the idea of a mother and daughter living in “a fairytale created by nature?”

Jac Jemc: I’m trying to explore the way assumptions can be proven wrong in the collection that story is in, False Bingo. Kudzu is terrifying, but I can’t help but think it’s so beautiful when I see a patch of it that’s completely overwhelmed something. I wanted to write a story about a mother who tried to insulate her daughter from all the harms of the world, but who also recognizes that there’s potential harm in that action, too. The kudzu seemed like the perfect metaphor for that—for the way we try to do the right thing, but how even the best intentions can turn disastrous, but then going one step further to ask: how do we decide what is bad is bad?

EZB: I’m familiar with your most recent book The Grip of It. You seem like you’ve been skirting the idea of literary horror with your short stories for a while. How did this book develop and were you inspired by other literary haunted houses?

JJ: I’ve always loved haunted house stories, and I realized that I had permission to try to write one of my own. I have lots of favorite haunted houses—the Blackwood house in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the hotel in The Shining, House of Leaves, [J.A.] Bayona’s film “The Orphanage.” I love the uncanny and I love writing dread, and to turn a house, the place where we should be most comfortable, strange is the creepiest transformation possible to me.

EZB: Your writing in “The Grip of It” has been compared to that of Shirley Jackson, which is high praise indeed. What have you learned from her but, also, how did you make this novel your own?

JJ: It’s the highest praise. I love Shirley Jackson for the way she’s willing to suggest answers without taking the mystery away. I love the way her work lingers in my mind, posing questions long after I finish. I like her dark sense of humor. I love the way she writes women. I struggle with the question of how I made the novel my own because it’s hardly something I thought about. It’s not as though I could write anything other than my own obsessions. I count on my particular point of view being enough to differentiate my work from other novels in similar genres.

EZB: Women are often overlooked or overshadowed by men when it comes to horror. What do you think a female perspective brings to the table for the genre?

JJ: I think there are lots and lots of women writing horror, it just doesn’t get labeled as such. Women write about being troubled and haunted all the time, but many of the threats exist on a very real daily basis, or we’re convinced something we knew to be true is in fact not how we came to understand it because of doubt and gaslighting and a dominant narrative that gets imposed on us. The reason people believe more men write horror is because men are more likely to invent things to be afraid of—monsters and alternate worlds, whereas women don’t need to.

EZB: What can you tell us about your forthcoming novel Total Work of Art?

JJ: It’s a historical work of fiction about Mad King Ludwig, the Bavarian monarch declared mad by a doctor who never met him and then mysteriously drowned outside of his castle-cum-asylum. It’s a comedy.

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