Beware the chalky undertaste…
Continuing with my Gothic Literature Reading Challenge (no particular order) I reread Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, chowing it down in a few days. I enjoyed my Franklin Press leather bound edition (trying to collect all of the Gothic volumes). Good lit deserves quality bindings.
This is one of those books I wish I could go back in time and read cold, although it’s a testament to Levin’s great skill that a story I know every nuance of can still keep me turning pages till dawn.
In his 1981 book on horror, Danse Macabre, Stephen King praises Levin as a one of the great plotters. He is the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel. And it’s true. Every revelation is supported by the hidden, and often overt, character motivations. Guy, an inspiring actor played to sleazy brilliance by John Cassavetes in the film, admits he’s a great bullshit artist and liar (brags about it in fact) on the first few pages of the book as the newlyweds try to get out of their lease so they can move into the Bramford, a fictitious Gothic apartment house along Central Park. Can’t say he didn’t warn you. Minnie Castevet, the nosy neighbor, says as much about herself when she declares I’m selfish as the day is long. She ain’t lying. You can’t trust anyone of these damn witches. Poor, naive Rosemary, carrying a time bomb in her belly during the hottest summer in New York history (a metaphor for Hell I assume) realizes this all too late.
Roman Polanski’s film version (his stunning American debut) is considered one of the greatest book to film adaptations of all time. If you seen or read one you’ve seen or read the other. With a few exceptions, the dialogue is almost verbatim, as are the scenes with the omission of Rosemary’s trip to her friend Hutch’s cabin to get her head together after Guy (really Satan) took advantage of her when she was passed out. I’ve seen the film many times, and it only adds to the book’s brilliance by giving us perfect characters (who can imagine a different Roman and Minnie or, my favorite, Hutch?) And Mia Farrow perfectly embodies the vulnerable (but also strong-minded) young mother.
There were many Christian faith themed horror books and films throughout my childhood (this Catholic girl loved their forbidden pleasures). I remember watching the heavily edited version of the film on TV with my mother who warned me not to let my faith waver because that’s when the Devil can come in. Metaphorically it’s good advice, and the book explores this theme throughout. As a former Catholic, Rosemary urbanely claims she’s Agnostic when the Castevets grill her over dinner about her feelings regarding the Pope. If she hadn’t been so wishy-washy maybe they would have passed her up for another drug addict like Terry.
There are so many chilling moment in both book and film, but my favorites are the subtle moments (sadly missing in much of horror). Hutch’s stories about the Black Bram while serving up roast lamb, the phone call with the actor the coven struck blind (Tony Curtis’ bitter voice in the film), and the Scrabble game reveal to the discordant sixties soundtrack unnerve me every time.
There are many horror novels (and I love reading all of them, even the shitty ones) but what puts Rosemary’s Baby in the Gothic category is not only the subject matter (witchcraft) but the location: an apartment house with a dark past that includes witches, suicides, and infant murder. The Black Bram with its gargoyles and rotting grandeur (I’ve been in the Dakota including the basement and it’s perfectly described) is its own character as the particularly eerie opening of the film with Mia’s creepy lullaby demonstrates.
The Stepford Wives and A Kiss Before Dying, may not exactly fit the Gothic genre, but Levin is so good they’re going on the list.
Next from the library shelf–the classic Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.