The New Yorker
Why is the Hudson Valley haunted?” Judith Richardson asks in Possessions, a study of “the history and uses of haunting” upstate. Richardson reviews the area’s bloody rebellions and wandering ghost sailors, drawing on county archives, travelogues, letters, and the usual literary sources. She finds that the valley’s ghostly legacy derives, in part, from a fraught history of land ownership, the influence of Dutch and German folklore, and a naturally ominous landscape—as well as from entrepreneurs in the tourism industry. Richardson herself seems a little susceptible to the atmosphere that spooked Ichabod Crane. The “mountains loom and brood,” she writes, and she seeks to explain “how hauntings intersect with cultural history, public memory, economics, and land issues.”
The teen-age ghosts in Stewart O’Nan’s new novel, The Night Country, also profit from native superstition. “This is still a new England, garden-green, veined with black rivers and massacres,” one of them says. The narrators were killed in a Halloween car accident, and, a year later, skittish townspeople are easy marks for their amusement. The dead are bent on revenge, which they get, of course, in an apotheosis of middle-of-the-night adolescent car rides through dark landscapes.
In Sara Gran’s Come Closer, the haunting starts in the office of a young architect, Amanda, who ignores early signs of otherworldly intervention, such as a mysterious tapping in her apartment and the delivery of a book, “Demon Possession Past and Present.” But soon she is witnessing old murders and, alas, committing new ones. Amanda’s detached and witty narration helps us believe, as she says, that “what we think is impossible happens all the time.” -- (Lauren Porcaro)
"What we think is impossible happens all the time," observes Amanda, the narrator of Gran's second novel (after 2001's Saturn's Return to New York), providing all the explanation advanced for this effectively understated account of her demonic possession. An industrious young architect with a promising career and seemingly happy marriage, Amanda begins acting uncharacteristically: writing obscene notes to her boss, shoplifting, committing impulsive acts of cruelty, indulging in extramarital affairs-and worse. These episodes, as inexplicable as they are erratic, dovetail with sexually suggestive dreams dominated by an alluring woman who reminds Amanda of her imaginary childhood playmate. Is Amanda losing her grip? Or is Naamah, the dream woman, a demon who has sought since Amanda's infancy to take control of her? Gran keeps the reader as intriguingly uncertain as her heroine, letting Amanda relate her experience in the casual, un-self-conscious voice of someone so increasingly accepting of her outrageous behavior that she almost seems to stand outside it. This ambiguous balancing of the psychological and supernatural creates just the right amount of narrative tension to keep the reader turning pages to see if Amanda is a lost soul on the road to perdition or just a bored yuppie giving into the imp of the perverse. Gran demonstrates that an urbane and subtle approach to ideas more often treated with hysteria and flash can still produce a gripping contemporary tale of terror. (Aug.) Forecast: As the blurbs from Stewart O'Nan and Darin Strauss suggest, this one is aimed, like Gran's sleeper of a first novel, at a mainstream literary audience. Genre horror fans can help give a boost, especially with a World Fantasy or Stoker nomination. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
In Gran's first novel, Saturn's Return to New York, the protagonist struggled to pull her life together to become an adult on her 29th birthday. In this second effort, quite the opposite happens when the main character faces a gradual but steady loss of control over her body to some sort of demon. Or is she merely delusional? Readers must decide, but it's safe to say that the supernatural is a subject for which Gran has some affinity. From the first tapping in the walls that mark the presence of the "demon" to the shocking conclusion, it's clear that nothing good is going to come of these characters. Amanda, an architect with a small firm, is married to Ed, who works in the financial department of a clothing corporation. They lead a relatively happy life, with the usual ups and downs of married couples, until Amanda's inexplicable behavior begins to alienate her from the people in her life. At less than 200 pages, Come Closer is a quick read-but not one that the reader will quickly forget. Recommended for most public libraries.-Caroline Mann, Univ. of Portland Lib., OR Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
In a decidedly creepy departure from her debut (Saturn's Return to New York, 2001: a charmer about mothers and daughters in literary New York), Gran tells of a young woman possessed by a demon. Amanda narrates as she describes her own frightening decline from a young, happily married architect to a woman she barely recognizes, possessed by the ancient demon Naamah. It begins imperceptibly at first-strange tapping sounds in her loft, increasing discord between her and husband Ed, her taking up cigarettes-but all these things are explained away by common sense: the loft is old and squeaks, she and Ed need more quality time together, stress at work has drawn her back to a bad habit. Perfectly reasonable, but in retrospect Amanda sees these inconsequential changes as signs of the demon taking hold of her. She dreams of Naamah: she and the demon wade in a sea of blood, Naamah, with beautiful black hair and pointy teeth, promises that she will always love Amanda and never leave. Early on, Amanda mail-orders a book on architecture, but instead she's sent a volume on demon possession. As the months progress, she is able to answer yes to nearly all of the questions under the heading "Are You Possessed by a Demon?" She begins seducing rough men, stealing, lying, almost drowns a child while on holiday, and then commits murder. But instead of taking a more conventional route-like turning to the law-Gran smartly puts the focus inward. For Amanda, the loss of herself, in both body and mind, is far worse than the committing of these horrible crimes. She seeks help, but her doctor and psychiatrist seem to be demons themselves and Amanda begins to see demons everywhere. The tale, fast-paced andclaustrophobic, raises a frightening question: Amanda could be going insane, but, in the final analysis, what's the difference? The Yellow Wallpaper meets Rosemary's Baby in a slim, wonderfully eerie novel.
From the Publisher
“What begins as a sly fable about frustrated desire evolves into a genuinely scary novel about possession and insanity. Hypnotic, disturbing, and written with such unerring confidence you believe every word, Come Closer is one of the most precise and graceful pieces of fiction I've read in a long time.”
—Bret Easton Ellis
“Ideal for an evening’s reading, with a kick that will stay with the reader for days afterward.”
—Dallas Morning News
“Sara Gran has written an intelligent horror story, a literary creepshow that works its magic subtly and well. It’s a marvel of restraint and taste, and still it worms its way under your skin and stays there.”
“Sara Gran’s Come Closer ought to carry a warning to readers. It’s impossible to begin this intense, clever, beautifully written novel without turning every page. A wonderful accomplishment.”
“I read Come Closer on the train, in a snowstorm, on a cold December night. It was the right atmosphere for this perfectly noirish tale of madness and love. Author Sara Gran writes with scalpel-like clarity, expertly blending tones to create a new kind of psychological thriller. I loved this book. Days after finishing it, it has not left my mind.”
“‘What we think is impossible happens all the time.’ So claims the beguiling narrator of Come Closer, and after reading this spare and menacing tale, the reader has to agree. Sara Gran has created a sly, satisfying (fast!) novel of one young woman possessed not only by a demon but also by her own secret desires.”
“Come Closer is sharp and strange and, best of all, at the moment of truth it doesn’t flinch from its own mad logic.”
“The Yellow Wallpaper meets Rosemary’s Baby in a slim, wonderfully eerie novel.”
"Polished and unsettling."
—The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“It gave us the creeps.”
Read an Excerpt
IN JANUARY I HAD A proposal due to my boss, Leon Fields, on a new project. We were renovating a clothing store in a strip mall outside the city. Nothing tremendous. I finished the proposal on a Friday morning and dropped it on his desk with a cheerful little note—“Let me know what you think!”—while he was in a meeting with a new client in the conference room. Later that morning Leon threw open his office door with
“Amanda!” he called. “Come in here.”
I rushed to his office. He picked up a handful of papers off his desk and stared at me, his flabby face white with anger.
“What the hell is this?”
“I don’t know.” It looked like my proposal—same heading, same format. My hands shook. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong. Leon handed me the papers and I read the first line: Leon Fields is a cocksucking faggot.
“What is this?” I asked Leon.
He stared at me. “You tell me. You just dropped it on my desk.”
My head spun. “What are you talking about? I put the proposal on your desk, not this, the proposal for the new job.”
I sifted through the papers on his desk for the proposal I had dropped off. “What is this, a joke?”
“Amanda,” he said. “Three people said they saw you go to the printer, print this out, and bring it to my desk.”
I felt like I had stepped into a bad dream. There was no logic, no reason anymore.
“Wait,” I said to Leon. I ran back to my desk, printed out the proposal, checked it, and brought it back to Leon’s office. He had calmed down a little and was sitting in his big leather chair.
I handed it to him. “This is it. This is exactly what I put on your desk this morning.”
He looked over the papers and then looked back up at me. “Then where did that come from?” He looked back at the fake proposal on the desk.
“How would I know?” I said. “Let me see it again.”
I read the second line: Leon Fields eats shit and likes it.
“Disgusting,” I said. “I don’t know. Someone playing a trick on you, I guess. Someone thinks it’s funny.”
“Or playing a trick on you,” he said. “Someone replaced your proposal with this. I’m sorry, I thought—” he looked around the office, embarrassed. In the three years I had
worked for him I had never heard Leon Fields apologize to anyone, ever.
“It’s okay,” I told him. “What were you supposed to think?”
We looked at each other.
“I’ll look over the proposal,” he said. “I’ll get back to you soon.”
I left his office and went back to my own desk. I hadn’t written the fake proposal, but I wished I knew who did. Because it was true; Leon Fields was a cocksucking faggot, and he did eat shit, and I had always suspected that he liked it very much.
THAT EVENING I WAS telling my husband, Ed, about the little mystery at work when we heard the tapping for the first time. We were sitting at the dinner table, just finishing a meal of take-out Vietnamese.
We looked at each other.
“Did you hear that?”
“I think so.”
Again: tap-tap. It came in twos or fours, never just one—tap-tap—and the sound had a drag on it, almost a scratching behind it, like claws on a wood floor.
First Ed stood up, then me. At first, the sound seemed to be coming from the kitchen.
So we walked to the kitchen and bent down to listen under the base of the refrigerator and look under the stove, but then it seemed to be coming from the bathroom. In the bathroom we checked under the sink and behind the shower curtain, and then we determined it was coming from the bedroom. So we walked to the bedroom, and then to the living room, and then back to the kitchen again. After we toured the apartment we gave up. It was the pipes, we decided, something to do with the water flow or the heating system. Or maybe a mouse, running around and around the apartment inside the walls. Ed was revolted by the idea but I thought it was kind of cute, a little mouse with the spunk to make it up four stories and live on our few crumbs. We both forgot about the story I had been telling, and I never told Ed about the practical joke at work.
THE TAPPING went on for the rest of the winter. Not all the time, but for a few minutes every second or third night. Then at the end of the month I went to a conference on the West Coast for two days, and Ed noticed that he didn’t hear it at all while I was gone. A few weeks later Ed went to a distant cousin’s wedding up north for three days. The tapping went on all night, every night, while he was gone. I searched the apartment again, chasing the sound around and around. I examined the pipes, checked every faucet for drips, turned the heat on and off, and still the tapping continued. I cleaned the floors of any crumbs a rodent could eat, I even bought a carton of unpleasant little spring traps, and the sound was still there. I turned up the television, ran the dishwasher, spent hours on the phone with old, loud friends, and still I heard it.
I was starting to think this mouse wasn’t so cute anymore.
THE NOISE WASN’T SO unusual, really; our building was close to a hundred years old and one expected that kind of noise. It had been built as an aspirin factory when the city still had an industrial base. After the industry moved out, one developer after another had tried to do something with the neighborhood, full of abandoned factories and warehouses like ours, but the schemes never took off. It was too far from the city, too desolate, too cold at night. As far as I was concerned it was better that the development hadn’t gone as planned. Our building was still only half full. I liked the peace and quiet.
The first time we saw the loft I was absolutely sure it was the home for us. Ed needed a little convincing.
“Think of the quiet!” I told Ed. “No neighbors!”
Conduits were in place for lighting and plumbing but they had never been utilized. We would have to do major renovation.
“Think of the possibilities!” I cried. “We can build it from scratch!”
Six white columns held up the place. Heat was provided by an industrial blower hung from the ceiling. “It has character,” I told Ed. “It has a personality!”
He relented, and we got the place at half of what we would have paid elsewhere. We spent the extra money on renovation. Ed gave me free rein to do as I pleased. I was an architect and now I could be my own dream client. I designed every detail myself, from the off-white color of the walls to the porcelain faucets on the kitchen sink to the installation of the fireplace along the south wall, which cost a fortune, but was worth the money.
The neighborhood, though, was sometimes difficult. No supermarkets, no restaurants, a few small grocery stores that specialized in beer and cigarettes. The edge of the closest commercial district for shopping was ten blocks away, and the nearest residential area was on the other side of that. But we adjusted quickly. We had a car to take us wherever we wanted on nights and weekends, and during the week we usually took the train to work. Our other concern when we first moved in was the crime, but soon enough we found out there was none. It was too desolate even for criminals. I did, however, come to be scared of the stray dogs that patrolled the neighborhood. The dogs kept their distance and I kept mine but I always felt it was an uneasy truce. I didn’t trust the animals to keep their side of the bargain. Walking home from the train I would spot one lurking in a doorway or on a street corner, eyeing me with suspicion. I was sure I would have preferred a mugger, who at least would only want my money—I didn’t know what these dogs wanted when they looked at me with their bloodshot eyes.
That fall I found out when a German shepherd mix followed me home from the train station one night. I thought running would only provoke him, so I continued to walk at a regular pace, faking nonchalance. The German shepherd trailed behind at an equally steady pace, also faking nonchalance. At the entrance to my building, a steel door up two wide steps, I put my key in the lock and thought I was home free—the dog stayed on the street. And then in one great leap he jumped up the two steps and attacked. With his front paws, as strong as human hands, he pushed me against the wall, ignoring my horrified screams, licked me right on my mouth and tried to seduce me. When I finally convinced him I wasn’t interested, he sat down by my feet, panting with a big smile. I spent a few minutes scratching behind his ears and then sneaked through the door.
I would have forgotten about him except that the next day he was waiting for me at the train station again, and the day after that. Walking home with him became a routine. He knew a few simple commands (“sit,” “stay,” “no”) and I was convinced he had started off life as somebody’s pet. I even went to a pet store and bought a bag of nutritionally balanced dog biscuits for him. On our walks home from the train I used the biscuits to teach him a few more commands—walk, lie down, stop-trying-to-fuck me (which we abbreviated as Stop). I hoped that if I got him into more civilized condition I could find a home for him. I would have liked to take him in myself but Edward was allergic; dogs, cats, hamsters, strawberries, angora, and certain types of mushrooms were all hazardous materials, to be kept out of the apartment and handled with care.
But I was glad to have at least one friend in the neighborhood. And over the next few months it was my new friend, a nameless flea-ridden mutt, rather than Ed, who would be the first to see that I was not entirely myself.
NOT THAT Ed wasn’t attentive, not that he didn’t notice what was going on in my life. He just wasn’t able to put the pieces together as quickly as the dog. Ed was my hero, my savior. Ed was the man who had imposed order on my my chaotic life. When I was single, I’d eaten cereal for dinner and ice cream for lunch. I’d kept my tax records in a shopping bag in the closet. I’d spent Saturdays in a hungover fog, watching hours of old black-and-white movies. With Ed I spent Saturdays outdoors, doing the things I had always imagined I should do: flea markets, lunches, museums. He did our taxes, with itemized deductions, every January, and filed the records away in a real file cabinet. Here was a man who could finish any crossword puzzle, open any bottle, reach the top shelf at the grocery store without strain. Here was stability, here was something I could rely on, my rock, day in and day out. Someone who loved me, who would never leave me alone. You can’t blame this sophisticated, civilized man for not having the same instincts as a wild dog.
From the Trade Paperback edition.