I know that the RIP Challenge always takes place in October, but there is something about January – the short, dark days – that I think lends itself to a good creepy read.
Ira Levin’s novel is a modern horror classic, probably so well-known because of the expertly executed film adaptation, but even if you know the plot, this novel is still well worth reading. If you don’t know the plot, there are spoilers here, so if you are planning to read the book, or watch the movie, don’t read on!
Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor husband Guy move into the Bramford, an old New York City apartment building with an ominous reputation and mostly elderly residents. Rosemary’s friend and confident Hutch warns her off it, given the stories that circulate about its history of suicides and strange residents, but Rosemary falls in love with the spacious apartment. Not long after the couple have moved in, their neighbours Roman and Minnie Castavet welcome the Woodhouses to the building and despite Rosemary’s reservations inveigle themselves into their daily lives.
The move to the Bramford coincides with personal success for the Woodhouses. Guy lands a starry Broadway role after the lead actor is bizarrely struck blind and Rosemary falls pregnant. The Castavets take an immediate interest in her health and wellbeing – bringing Rosemary a daily ‘vitamin’ drink and sending her to their own private doctor.
As Rosemary becomes increasingly isolated and increasingly ill with her pregnancy, she begins to have reservations about the role the Castevets are playing in their lives and to consider that the happiness they have found may come at a dreadful cost.
I anchored my unbelievable story in the reality of Manhattan in that season—as much to make myself believe it as to win the belief of readers.
Ira Levin cleverly sets his horror within the banality of urban living. His successful style here is to depict the day-to-day commonality of furnishing a new house and dealing with a pregnancy in detail while interspersing the text with odd, strange moments that could be easily explained away, but build up a real sense of dread.
Seemingly innocuous moments, like the gift of a necklace or the sharing of a dessert, become more ominous as they accumulate. In a repeated device, Levin brings us into Rosemary’s dreams, melding genuinely imagined thoughts with moments that might actually be happening in the real world. Is Rosemary giving in to pregnancy-induced anxiety, or is there a Satanic cult taking an unhealthy interest in her, and more importantly, in her baby?
Levin builds the plot slowly, but it pays off and in the end, he leaves us in no doubt as to what has been happening. Guy has entered into a Faustian pact, only it is not his own soul that he has sold to the Devil, it is his wife’s womb. Moreover, this is where the true horror of Rosemary’s Baby lies.
For all the references to witchcraft and Satanism, what is truly scary here is how Rosemary is treated by everyone as property, with no control over her body, her health or her own feelings. Her body becomes, in fact, capital – capital that the patriarchy use to their own gain.
It is interesting that Guy is an actor rather than any other profession. Used to dissembling, he is flighty, charming and vain and Rosemary never feels quite sure of where she stands with him. He says what she needs to hear when she needs to hear it, but she is never quite sure of his authenticity. Reading the book today, it is clear that he is an abusive husband and the insidious manner in which Rosemary becomes isolated, from her family, her friends and from her own judgement is wholly believable and truly terrifying.
The trope of the notion of pregnancy as one of bodily possession is not new, but Levin handles it well here, even if it is at times unsubtle. The ending is Grand Guignol of the highest order, but still manages to explore the idea that the maternal bond is stronger than anything and that Rosemary, finally, takes back a small victory for herself and for her baby.
Read on: iBooks
Number Read: 203
Number Remaining: 542
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!