Is it weird to admit that I really 'enjoyed' reading Ira Levin's 1967 novel Rosemary's Baby? I mean it may well be one of my favorite reads of the year come next December. It's not exactly the content/story but a combination of horror story--and the horror of the story (which is a genre I am not one to read generally) and the pitch perfect storytelling. Levin does it really, really well and in a way that is not over the top graphic or gruesome. There is no violence or blood (and if there is it is all off-stage and by suggestion only), but sheesh it is a freaky story. He does it well and he does it in a subtle understated way. A creeping dread as realization sets in just what is happening to poor Rosemary.
Even if you have never read the book or seen the movie (and I suspect if you have done one or the other there are probably more people who have seen the movie than read the book, but I might be wrong there). Even if you have neither read nor seen I bet you still know what the story is essentially about--Rosemary's baby is, frightening thought, Satan's baby. She doesn't know he is the father. Her husband Guy has made a pact with a group of witches/Satanists for her to bear the baby in exchange for fame and fortune. Very Faustian yes? So, a classic tale retold in 1960s vernacular complete with all the accoutrements that came with the 60s--'Is God Dead' (proclaims Time Magazine that year), the Pope in Yankee Stadium (imagine all those robes and jewels--what he must spend on them). A time when Society was morally bankrupt. Enter the Devil himself.
Did you know that Ira Levin was a playwright? He wrote just handful of books (some major bestsellers and classics now), won the Edgar Award and a Tony. Maybe it was his work on and for Broadway that informed his novel writing (or maybe it is the reverse?). Having seen the movie numerous times (and this month I hope to go see it on the big screen in a local indie movie theater) and then come to the book being intensely familiar with the dialogue, the novel reads almost like a fleshed out script. Apparently Roman Polanski who directed the film worked with Levin (down to asking him what color dress Rosemary would have worn in a particular scene and the date of the New Yorker that Guy would have seen the ad for a shirt he bought) to get it right and indeed the movie is very faithful to the novel. There were some interesting and surprising scenes and small details that were not included but it was pretty much spot on, which is also why I liked the book so much.
Rosemary Woodhouse is a Midwestern girl (from Omaha!) marries Baltimoran Guy Woodehouse, an actor some years her senior. Her very Catholic family has more or less severed ties with her since her move to NYC. She is introduced to the artistic, bohemian world only sometimes feeling a little out of her depth. They had been on the waiting list to move into the Bramford, an old and illustrious building turned into apartments. They were just preparing to move into new digs when their name comes up, what luck. The Bramford, 'very popular with actors and artists', just what they have always wished for. It isn't until they decide to move in that a friend mentions the darker history of the Bramford, also know as "Black Bramford". A string of very unhappy misfortunes seem to have taken place there including two sisters who should not have been left alone with very small children.
They move in and get to know their neighbors, an elderly couple (with poor dress sense but who are world travellers). Roman Castevet's stories of his father, who was a theater producer, entice Guy who ends up becoming close to them. Guy is just on the cusp of making it. He's done some theater, and TV work and lots of commercials, but he hasn't quite gotten his big break. And Rosemary is hoping that when he does they can finally start a family as she has been wishing for a baby. Well, you see what a perfect set up all this is, right? Perfect timing with all the right ingredients?
Levin's writing is pretty straightforward and not overly embellished but just right for the story. And he does dialogue really well. The story just flows and is quite literally a page turner. It feels set in a particular time and place yet it does not feel dated. And he achieves that sense of horror and foreboding by what is implied. The reader just slowly pieces it all together until that last chapter or so, which is actually accomplished even better in the book than the movie. It's creepy to think what is happening, what has happened but even worse what might be yet to come!
I like Ira Levin's style and already had a copy of A Kiss Before Dying on my shelves but have since also added his other classic (you don't need to have read the book or watched the movie to understand) The Stepford Wives. The latter is quite slender and I would have started reading the moment I opened the mailer, but I am going to hold it in reserve for when my reading pile can accept a newcomer. I think I will need also (what is called his best book) The Boys from Brazil, too. Book and film both heartily recommended!