A Truly Terrifying Read: ‘The Stepford Wives’ by Ira Levin (1972)

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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.

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9 Responses to A Truly Terrifying Read: ‘The Stepford Wives’ by Ira Levin (1972)

  1. A great reminded of a properly chilling book, rather than the (sorry) adolescent variety involving yawning graves and zombiewerevamps endlessly recycled. I think I might be visiting the library and seeing what (if any) Levins they have for a re-read. Unfortunately their shelves do seem to have succumbed to the more modern recycled same old same old copycat stuff, and a clear out of vintage and golden. Sighs. There’s always second hand shops to unearth these treasures in………..

    • This is my first Levin, but it certainly won’t be my last! I’m thinking Rosemary’s Baby should be next (but, as you say, it will depend on me getting hold of a copy).
      I really think Stepford Wives cuts to the chase, in good supernatural/monster fiction it’s not the creatures themselves that are terrifying – it’s what they represent or reveal about society. And then a load of writers and readers miss the point and it’s sexy, brooding vampires again…

  2. FictionFan says:

    A great book, and it’s the idea of all the men being happy with the situation that’s the really chilling factor. I did enjoy the old film, but think it might be a bit creaky now – it’s many years since I saw it. And I haven’t seen the newer one – I may look out for it myself over spooky season!

  3. Sarah says:

    I loved the original film, and it is wonderfully, blisteringly terrifying in an understated way – I think suggested threat is always so much more powerful than gratuitous horror. I’d never even considered reading the book, to be honest, before reading your review I’m not sure I even knew the film was based on a book, but now I have, I must get my hands on a copy!

    • I hadn’t known about the book either – it seems Ira Levin is the anti-Stephen King, a horror writer who was responsible for really famous scary films but whose name is virtually unknown. Next up will be Rosemary’s baby!

  4. Desiree B. Silvage says:

    Reblogged this on LITERARY TRUCE.

  5. Pingback: Classic horror for Halloween: ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ by Ira Levin (1967) | Shoshi's Book Blog

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