I don’t usually read scary books, because I terrify embarrassingly easily and feel I don’t need any encouragement. Every now and then, however, a book will slip through the net and on occasion, I won’t be ashamed to admit quite how frightening I found it.
Levin’s novel is short and simple, beginning with the Eberharts moving to Stepford. They are a modern, two-income family, though, as a photographer, Joanna works mostly from home unlike her commuter husband. Both are a little disconcerted to find that the town has a ‘men’s club’, from which women are banned. There is no equivalent club for wives, the women are far too busy with their housework. As Joanna realises, this is not an anti-social, fake excuse; her neighbours do housework all the time, cooking, cleaning and polishing all day and half way through the night. Other noticeable facts about the women are that they are all beautiful and have disproportionately large breasts.
Joanna is increasingly worried about what is going on in the town. Just to reinforce the message, it’s not that the women aren’t allowed to do things other than live out a demented 1950s suburban stereotype, it’s that they don’t want too. They happily explain that men need time to themselves, that their husbands’ careers are more important and that they are too busy to talk right now because the floor needs waxing.
Like the best horror stories there’s a strong claustrophobic element. After all, women don’t behave like this everywhere in America … only in this town and possibly in some shows in Disneyland. As Joanna becomes increasingly isolated, I suffered along with her, not wanting to believe it was happening and (unlike her) really hoping that Levin was the kind of author who bottles out at the end and doesn’t feel the need to carry things through to their most hideous conclusion.
Written and set during they heyday of Women’s Liberation, ‘The Stepford Wives’ provides a genuinely terrifying alternative to the aims of the movement. The style is very different, but I really recommend it as a companion to Atwood’s ‘The Handmaiden’s Tale’. This is partly because of the reality it creates, but also because of the underlying tension it explores between Women’s Lib and male wishes. When one of Joanna’s oldest friends in Stepford suddenly decides that she had been ‘sloppy and self-indulgent‘ to think about her own social life, interests and career, Joanna tries questioning her son:
‘”Jonny, I – I can’t get over the way your mother’s changed…I can’t understand it”…
“Neither can I,” he said. “She doesn’t shout any more, she makes hot breakfasts …” He looked over at the house and frowned. Snowflakes clung to his face. “I hope it lasts,” He said, “but I bet it doesn’t.”‘
It’s very personal, but this book definitely touched a genuine fear of mine. Maybe I over-empathised, but as I read, I thought of my own life without reading, chatting, thinking or blogging (all undeniably ‘self-indulgent’, but they make me who I am). It’s terrifying enough to think of these being taken away, the deeper horror comes with the suggestion that your nearest and dearest secretly would prefer you without them.
It may be over 40 years old, but ‘The Stepford Wives’ has lost none of its ability to shock and scare. If you want an alternative Halloween read, look no further. Also, if you can recommend the film, let me know. I avoid scary films like I hide from scary books, but I’m always up for a worthy exception to the rule.