I read “Come Closer” after seeing it recommended on a Mumsnet thread asking for people to share their favourite “scary books”. Despite this, I should begin by saying that – the odd moment of utter horror excepted – this is not, strictly speaking, a scary book. At least, it’s not a scary book in the sense that it’s highly unlikely to give you nightmares (and I say this as someone who was plagued for years with terrible cold-sweat dreams about this completely unconvincing giant snake from Doctor Who).
What it is, though, is scary in the same tradition as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, and Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (which I raved about here). It’s scary because it raises some uncomfortable questions about the consequences of power. Specifically, the consequences of giving power to a previously powerless woman.
At first sight, the plot is incredibly simple. The narrator, Amanda, describes the experience of being possessed by a female demon named Naamah. As the book unfolds and Naamah becomes more and more dominant, Amanda’s mental processes become increasingly unreliable. The story’s ending is ambiguous; on the one hand, Amanda has lost everything she ever valued, but on the other hand, Naamah – now fully in possession of Amanda’s body – is having the time of her life, living exactly how she pleases and enjoying every minute.
It has to be said that there are plenty of books about demonic possession. But what really makes the book sing is the ambiguity of its central premise. Is Amanda really being possessed by a separate entity? Or is she acting out some hidden part of her own character?
The opening chapter has Amanda’s boss hauling her over the coals for submitting a report to him which contains the memorable opening, “Leon Fields is a cocksucking faggot. Leon Fields eats shit and likes it.” Amanda is horrified. This isn’t the report she wrote, she assures Leon. Unsurprisingly, he believes her – because truly, who would write that in a report about their boss and then deliberately leave it on their desk for them to find? Amanda returns to her desk to think about what just happened:
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.
Back in her apartment, Amanda and her husband Ed are plagued by a strange tapping noise. They hunt high and low, but are unable to find any cause. Later on, an apparent warehousing error at a publishing house means that, instead of a copy of “Design Issues Past And Present”, Amanda receives “Demon Possession Past And Present”. Reading it, she discovers that strange tapping noises can be the first sign of a demonic haunting.
On the one hand, Amanda’s secret and outrageous thoughts about her boss make it into a report she was seen leaving on his desk. On the other, both Amanda and Ed can hear the noises. Amanda’s experiences fit the profile of demonic possession, but this profile comes from a book she may very well have ordered herself. Is Naamah a separate entity or not? We’re pulled one way, then the other. In the hands of a more florid writer, this could be incredibly irritating, but Gran’s style is sparse and minimal, and the result is a pleasingly subtle undercutting of all possible interpretations of Amanda’s experience. By the end, we genuinely don’t know if we’ve read an account of demonic possession, or of mental illness.
Or is it, instead, something else altogether? Is this a story about the consequences of a woman throwing off the shackles of acceptable female behaviour? The central relationship of the book is Amanda’s marriage to Ed, which gradually unravels as the “possession” takes hold. But is this a tragedy, or a liberation?
Well, what do we think?
I was twenty-eight when I met Edward. I felt lucky to have found him. He was a man you could trust, a big-boned healthy blond. No skeletons in his closet…He didn’t like sports or late-night television…he had a good mind for details, a good memory, and a determination to follow through on his word: if he said he was going to call at three, he called at three…
…there were a few things about Ed, small things, that drove me crazy. For instance he was almost compulsively neat – a scrap of paper on the coffee table for longer than a day or two would upset him. He was given to a rigidity that could be slightly repulsive…if there was no thin-sliced white bread for toast in the morning he could be thrown into a mood for hours. And he didn’t take any deviation from a plan well…and the toothpaste cap that absolutely must be replaced immediately, and the shirts that had to be folded just so…
Ed also over-plays his allergies to stop Amanda from smoking or having pets, polices her drinking habits and turns up five hours late on Valentine’s Day, to a romantic dinner in he himself had proposed. He might have good hair and do the tax-returns on time; but that’s not really much of a trade.
Ed’s attitude to Amanda is bossy and paternalistic. Even though she’s an independent woman with her own career, he still tries to force her into the role of home-maker. When she (or Naamah) resists, it’s sometimes hard not to give a little cheer. Here’s Ed attempting to pick a huge fight with Amanda for failing to cater for a dinner-party for Ed’s friends:
“I don’t understand,” he yelled. “You didn’t make ANYTHING? We have people coming over in one hour and you don’t even have a box of fucking rice in the house? What the hell am I supposed to serve, cereal and ice cream?”
“No, Ed,” I told him, “You mean you didn’t make anything, you don’t even have a box of rice, and you have people coming over in one hour. And no, they can’t have my ice cream.”
This is the acceptable face of female resistance – standing up to domestic drudgery, refusing to be bullied by the patriarchy. Other incidents are more ambiguous. Is it liberating or destructive to sleep with strangers, to drink to excess, to smoke, to gatecrash parties wearing provocative clothing? Still other incidents are unequivocally hideous. We see Amanda committing acts of violence and intimidation against men and women, against loved ones and strangers – sometimes out of revenge, and sometimes just because it’s fun.
I really like that Amanda’s story doesn’t progress from you-go-sister to that’s-a-bit-much-actually to Jesus-you-need-locking-up. The violent, selfish, destructive acts committed by Naamah are there from the start. In this narrative, the opposite of “repressed” is not “liberated” but “dangerous”. We never get our moment of perfect balance between Amanda’s good-girl obedience and Naamah’s destructive rage.
And that’s what makes this story really interesting. By casting off the shackles of societal expectation, Amanda discovers she can do pretty much anything she pleases. She can insult her boss. She can threaten strangers. She can steal what she wants. She can hurt and even kill people who annoy her. She can have sex with any piece of pretty rough-trade that takes her fancy. She can almost drown a child in full view of her parents. She can burn her husband with cigarettes. She can do anything she likes, because she’s stopped caring what other people think. Even in the mental hospital where the novel ends (of course Amanda – quite literally a Madwoman in the Attic – ends up in a mental hospital…where else could a Feminist Horror novel possibly end?), Naamah / Amanda is still having the time of her life:
First I stabbed a girl with one of those home-made knives. I don’t know why. Then, in solitary, I grew my nails long and attacked on of the guards. Luck for her she wasn’t pretty to begin with. So I got moved to high security.
She has a grand old time here, she has all the girls following her orders, she’s sleeping with one of the guards and maybe one of the doctors. She’s like a fox in a chicken coop here in the hospital.
I’m a feminist. (I have the mug and everything.) I am absolutely committed to the concept of equal rights, and to a life lived according to individual abilities, rather than gender expectations. I believe we all have the right to live our lives in a way that makes us happy, rather than a way society says we ought to live them.
But of course, there’s always one crucial caveat, which is that we don’t harm others by doing so. Whether she’s a true demon, or just the externalisation of Amanda’s own self, Naamah is the inevitable outcome of liberation without conscience.