Last year I was genuinely terrified by Ira Levin’s ‘The Stepford Wives‘ and I decided that, taken in moderation, Levin could become my new favourite horror writer. ‘The Stepford Wives’ was entirely without fireworks, but the depiction of the hidden evil within conventional relationships and idealised suburbia had me metaphorically looking over my shoulder for months.
I was both hoping and fearing that ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ would have the same effect. In the case of this Levin classic, I did know the ending of the film, but then a vague knowledge of the ultimate horror in Stepford in no way diminished the force of that story. Plus, in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ there was something of a spoiler in the title: when the fashionable, artistic Woodhouses move into their dream apartment we can confidently assume that a pregnancy and child are going to occur at some point.
Before the baby appears though, there is a lot of gothic potential in the Woodhouses’ new home. ‘The Bramford, old, black and elephantine, is a warren of high-ceilinged apartments prized for their fireplaces and Victorian detail. Rosemary and Guy had been on its waiting list since their marriage…’ Urban legends about some shady mysteries in the building’s near and distant past are only part of its charm for the characters (I personally was getting tenser and tenser at every mention of the flat’s layout and idiosyncrasies). And so the book continued; there are continual hints to the sensitive reader that the couple should leave. Leave right now. Immediately. But it was also easy to put most of these down to oversensitivity on my part, I am after all hyper-aware of gothic tropes and it really doesn’t take much to scare me off.
Levin’s genius is that he plays his readers with such skill; they naturally end up getting caught up in the characters’ own fears and paranoia. Even I could see that I was being ridiculous as I kept on all the lights in order to read about a dinner party with Guy and Rosemary’s friendly if slightly boring middle-aged neighbours. To my shame, I became really happy when Rosemary started getting twitchy and irritable because it meant that I wasn’t alone in being made increasingly uneasy as I encountered each tell-tale genre trope.
And then the story starts to weave its magic. I know it’s a classic horror story, but Rosemary doesn’t and her fears are always hysterically tempered with the paranoid understanding that she’s being ridiculous. As with ‘The Stepford Wives,’ the real terror comes from the suggestion that in the modern world (this time of 1960s New York) no one will listen to a woman’s fears or beliefs. The vulnerability that comes with pregnancy only adds to the psychological torment for both protagonist and reader.
As with ‘The Stepford Wives I came to this book with preconceived ideas about what I might find scary and, once again, Levin has surpassed my expectations. A book that strikes at the heart of what will frighten modern, urban, educated readers, I highly recommend ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ for this Halloween.