I had only heard of the author Sara Gran peripherally, mentioned on a few other book review channels I watch, so when I came across her novella Come Closer, I wasn’t really aware of: one, how old it was, and two, how it had had something of a resurgence in popularity more recently, following the success of Gran’s later series of books featuring the character of Claire DeWitt. As with many of my book review picks, I simply saw Come Closer pop up in my Kindle Unlimited recommendations, thought I remembered the author’s name from somewhere, and liked the cover, so dived right in.
The novella came out back in 2003, which didn’t actually occur to me as I was reading it, other than one reference to a character maybe getting one of those newfangled cell phones; I guess that’s a good sign, as the story doesn’t really seem to have aged much at all. The book is short and sweet, clocking in at just under 200 pages, and I finished it off easily in one afternoon, completely drawn in from the first page and pulled deeper into the tale by the author’s straightforward, somewhat acerbic, and conversational style. This book packs a hell of a wallop in its scant page count, and as it goes on becomes something akin to watching a horrific plane crash that you know is inevitable but are powerless to prevent.
Come Closer is told from the first-person perspective of a thirty-four-year-old woman named Amanda. She lives in some unnamed, large metropolitan city, works as a successful architect who is well on track to setting up her own firm in the near future, has a dependable, loving husband named Ed who works as a financial consultant, and lives in a beautiful loft apartment in a rather desolate but peaceful corner of the city. The couple seem like typical, upper-middle-class urbanites: no children to bog them down, fancy work dinners and beach houses, expensive shoes and handbags. The kind of life, one would think, many people would absolutely kill for.
But from the very beginning of the story, something seems ever so slightly off. The first occurrence, laid out on the very first page, has to do with a proposal Amanda has written and submitted to her boss. She thinks it’s impeccable and certain to be approved, but then she gets called into the boss’s office and reamed out, because the proposal she thought she printed and turned in has been replaced by a slur-filled rant calling the boss all kinds of names and implying some colorful things about his sexual proclivities. Shocked, Amanda insists someone must be playing a prank on her, and then prints out another copy of the real proposal, which she then turns in. The boss is mollified, believing that someone indeed had replaced her document as a joke. And even though Amanda is convinced that must have been what happened, privately she’s a bit weirded out, because she did actually think all those derogatory things about her boss that were written in the first proposal.
Then there’s the matter of the strange tapping sounds that she and her husband Ed have been hearing back at their loft. The sounds always come in pairs (tap-tap, tap-tap, sounding something like a dog’s nails clicking against a wooden floor), and they sometimes go on for hours, but only occur when Amanda is in the apartment, and never when Ed is there alone. Whenever she or Ed go looking for the source of the noise, they can never quite pinpoint it; if it sounds like it’s coming from the living room and they go to check there, then it will sound like it’s coming from the kitchen, and so forth.
There’s also a stray dog that Amanda befriends on her daily walk from the train station as she’s coming home from work every day. The dog, a German shepherd, is initially affectionate toward her and becomes even more so when she starts bringing treats along to give him as they walk toward her building together. She thinks about adopting him, but Ed is allergic. As time goes on, though, the dog seems to no longer recognize her, and growls when she approaches. (By the way, nothing bad happens to the dog, so don’t worry.)
There are also lots of other little things. She takes up smoking again, in spite of her husband’s protests. She starts shoplifting and not really realizing she did so. She gets more easily irritated with her husband, picking petty fights with him, and also snaps at strangers for minor slights. She gets the feeling that her personality is changing in small ways, and when she happens upon friends who haven’t seen her in a long time, they say she looks different, maybe healthier or happier, but it’s nothing they can quite put their finger on.
There are also the dreams. Amanda has been having these odd, recurring dreams about a beach with crimson sand and crimson water, and a beautiful dark-haired woman who lies next to her on the sand and tells her how much she loves her, and that she will never leave her. This woman bears an uncanny resemblance to how Amanda pictured her childhood imaginary friend, Pansy, and on one occasion, Amanda even swears she sees Pansy in the street and the woman calls her by name, though of course Ed doesn’t believe her when she tells him later.
One day by chance—or so it seems—Amanda receives the wrong book in the mail; she had ordered an architecture book from a small press, but they “accidentally” sent one about demon possession instead. For a lark, Amanda takes the demon possession quiz featured in the first part of the book, and is amused but also mildly disturbed by the fact that she scores a three or four out of ten. This possession quiz will become a recurring plot point throughout the story, as Amanda takes it a few more times, scoring higher and higher each time she does.
Essentially, Come Closer is a demon possession story, but told from the first person perspective of the possessee, which is not something I think I’ve ever read before. It’s very grounded in reality, and has a sort of black humor to it; I feel as though this is pretty much exactly what it would be like if demons were real and one was slowly taking over your body, but you weren’t quite aware that that’s what was happening to you. And in fact, the story does leave open the possibility that Amanda is descending into madness and simply perceiving it as possession, but because the reader sees everything from Amanda’s point of view, there’s no way of knowing for sure. This could absolutely be read either literally or metaphorically, in other words, and it works just the same.
I think the thing I liked the most about this book—well, other than just about everything—was how cleverly insidious it was. The reader is in many ways in the same position as Amanda; at the beginning of the story, she seems content enough, but pretty much everyone can relate to sometimes feeling dissatisfied with life, feeling as though we want something different than what we have, or that things didn’t turn out quite the way we wanted them to. Most people have had idle fantasies about blowing up their stable but boring lives and going off to do something crazy. It’s a natural human inclination. So when Amanda takes up smoking again, it seems less like she’s possessed, and more like she’s reclaiming some of her own personality she perhaps suppressed for the sake of her husband when she married, health concerns be damned. When she claps back at someone in the street for being an asshole, we see it less as a demon worming its way into her psyche and more as though Amanda is learning to be more assertive, and not be pushed around. In this way, the reader begins to identify with Amanda somewhat; nothing that happens at first is all that bad, and really, who wouldn’t like to tell their boss what they think of him to his face? Who wouldn’t like to let their hair down sometimes and have that extra shot of whiskey, or buy that stunning outfit that’s just a little more expensive than you can really afford? It’s perfectly understandable, but the hell of the story is that it’s these very incremental desires, mostly harmless in their early stages, that slowly ramp up until Amanda has been entirely consumed by this demon, which, real or not, causes her to completely burn down her entire life and eventually commit violence and murder.
This was an outstanding read: fast-paced, compelling, darkly funny, and terrifying in equal measure. It doesn’t have any twists and turns really, being basically a simple tale of a woman who is either possessed by a demon or succumbing to insanity and ultimately destroying herself and those around her, but it’s a wild and grimly entertaining ride. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is into psychological or possession horror with something of a literary fiction bent.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.