As a teenager I read all Ira Levin’s then-published novels in a short space of time. This was the book that kick-started my Levin frenzy and I was interested to see how well it has stood the test of time.
It has. By twisting horror story conventions it manages to convince as one of the most successful pieces of horror writing of all time, even though it is mainly frightening by implication. How does it do this? Firstly, Rosemary is likeable. Too often the “victims” in horror writing have some flaw that means we feel a little less sympathy for them when the bad things start happening. Rosemary may be a little irritating and gullible but comes across as an ordinary girl in love, living in a place she had aspired to and contemplating starting a family. Secondly, we have a glossy urban setting which feels cool and modern. A lot of the references throughout the book would have resonated with the 60’s audience who would have seen Guy and Rosemary’s life as both aspirational and stylish. Midway through Rosemary reinvents herself with a then-so trendy short Vidal Sassoon cut. (It isn’t entirely successful- the damage to her physical health caused by what is lurking inside her leads to one of her friends to refer to her as “Miss Concentration Camp 1966″). The darkness of traditional Gothic stories is replaced here with the lights of urban New York, but the darkness is there simmering, like the devilish bun in the oven.
Thirdly, it works due to its length. Levin was a brilliant story-teller and keeps the story moving throughout with the right balance of plot development and almost trivial asides. No long-winded build-up here. This is even though at first it seems miles away from a horror, a young couple set up new home and make new friends, but this actually causes the reader to read very carefully with heightened awareness throughout, hanging on the details. Levin keeps us all on a tight leash.
There’s great characterisation here. Rosemary and her actor husband, Guy, trying to push himself ahead of his rivals and also their neighbours Roman and Minnie Castevets who smother the couple in good intentions. Everyone feels real and that is important as Rosemary’s paranoia sets in . Who is to be trusted?
Plot-wise, everyone knows this is a story of modern Satanism both from the book’s fame and the equally excellent 1968 Polanski directed movie. Starring a superbly cast Mia Farrow as Rosemary it follows the dialogue from the book extremely closely. The plot is slight, but so gripping and even more chilling because of its slightness. I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this. I thought perhaps the world of horror had moved on from this and that it might come across as either dull or plain trashy. It’s neither. It is an important horror classic and a perfect example of mid-60’s American paranoia. Anyone searching for that Great American novel – here is an outside the box contender.
Rosemary’s Baby was originally published in 1967. I read the Corsair 2011 edition with an introduction by Chuck Palahniuk.