Sara Gran’s 2003 novel Come Closer is one of the most revered texts in the modern horror genre. As such, it has long been on my radar, but I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I had never read it until recently. Thankfully, though, Soho Press’s release of a 20th Anniversary Edition of the book prompted me to rectify my extended error.
Gran’s short novel–whose protagonist Amanda believes she is possessed by a ferocious, fanged female demon named Naamah–offers a masterclass in unreliable narration. Has Amanda been genuinely invaded by a force of outside evil, or is she just replete with her own inner demons, someone who finally gives in to her most impish impulses? Amanda attributes a “subtle” seduction to Naamah: “This mental voice is new, it’s a sound you’re not accustomed to hearing in your own head, but it’s not that different either, it’s done a good job of imitating your own silent voice and you like what it’s saying.” But the truest subtlety here might be Gran’s, as the author suggests that the perceived possession could be a delusion–a convenient eschewing of responsibility for all the vice and violence to which Amanda resorts. There is also a crafted ambiguity to the novel’s titular dictate: do these two words stem from Naamah, eager to draw her targeted subject into her demonic embrace, or from the lonely and unsatisfied Amanda, who on a fundamental level welcomes the idea of having “someone to love me, and never leave me alone”?
Come Closer has been hailed widely as one of the most frightening books written over the past two decades. Such buzz perhaps set me up for disappointment, as Amanda’s account proved less exquisitely unnerving than I anticipated. Granted, different readers have different triggers; as a lapsed Catholic, I don’t put much stock in the diabolical and don’t dread the malicious attention of a demon as a more devout believer might. Likewise, I can recognize that this book–in which Amanda loses control over her own body, and frequently awakens from blackouts following Naamah’s bawdy binges to find herself “naked and shivering in bed with a man I had never seen before”–will hit much closer to home with a female audience. That being said, the horror here appears to be compromised somewhat by the diaristic format. Yes, unease steadily mounts as Naamah’s seeming influence over Amanda grows more pronounced, but the sequence of short chapters prevents the narrative from achieving sustained suspense. Undoubtedly, some chilling incidents are presented (Amanda’s attempted drowning of a young girl already struggling to stay afloat; her apparent savaging of an obnoxious newsstand-operator with a boxcutter), yet these other characters are so thinly sketched by Amanda that the reader (this one, at least) fails to find their plight especially terrifying. What I actually found most evocative were the scenes centered on Amanda’s burgeoning psychic powers (byproduct of her demonic possession). She experiences ghostly glimpses of past acts of human depravity, and grows painfully attuned to suffering: “A vintage yellow dress I had saved for special occasions now made me nauseated–its previous owner had been a drunk, and when I wore it I felt my liver burn with cirrhosis.”
There were a couple of aspects of the novel that pleasantly surprised me. First, its dark humor: just as Naamah takes wicked delight in tormenting her host, Gran herself seems to revel in the opportunity to satirize the spiritualist entrepreneurs who attempt to “depossess” Amanda. There is also a strong feminist undercurrent to the narrative. Naamah claims to be the rejected second wife of Adam (the world’s original male), mentored in demonism by Adam’s first wife Lilith, who “wasn’t good enough at all, she wouldn’t lie down and take it, and she wouldn’t do what she was asked or told.” One cannot overlook the fact that a female demon is employed as the possessing entity in this novel, allowing Gran to rework the more rapacious/salacious Pazuzu-inside-Regan dynamics of a canonical text such as The Exorcist.
In hindsight, Gran’s novel neatly aligns with a long tradition of American Gothic fiction. Characters obsessively trying to locate the source of strange noises within the walls of their home hearken back to the narrator’s desperate probing of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Amanda’s suspicion that the doctors she visits are secret Satanists constitutes an unmistakable allusion to Rosemary’s Baby. There’s also a strong Fight Club vibe here, from the squalid neighborhood Amanda first lives in to the mental institution that she finally haunts at book’s end.
The 20th Anniversary Edition includes a new Postscript purporting to be “A Note from the Editors” of 2003’s Come Closer–a device that lends an added air of verisimilitude to the preceding novel. This Postscript also furthers the deliberate ambiguity and boundary-blurring of Amanda’s narrative. “In order to help the afflicted, the ruminating, and the confused,” the Editors state, “we have provided this series of questions and answers to illuminate, educate, and, hopefully, keep readers on the correct path.” But the structuring quickly breaks down, as the responding Editors prove perhaps even more disturbed than those seeking their guidance.
Come Closer might not be the scariest book published in the past twenty years, but it’s surely one of the most satisfying the horror genre has offered. Like the best of Poe’s work, its artful complexity–its vacillation between supernatural and psychological explanation–encourages continuous scrutiny. Ultimately, the book’s enticing title might be interpreted as an open invitation to attentive readers, those willing to expose themselves to utter engrossment.