Monday, 10 October 2011

"Rosemary's Baby" by Ira Levin

Year of Publication:  1967
Number of Pages:  229 pages
Genre:  Horror

This book is an interesting and entertaining slice of urban horror.  Rosemary Woodhouse and her actor husband, Guy, move into a New York apartment building with a long and sinister history.  Before long, however, they have settled in and befriended the nice elderly couple next door, Minnie and Roman Castevet.  Rosemary is ecstatic when she falls pregnant.  However her pregnancy is a particularly difficult one, as she finds herself crippled with agonising pains and also noticing that her husband is acting very strangely, and her neighbours are taking a very strong interest in her and her baby.  Rosemary quickly comes to suspect that she is at the centre of a bizarre and powerful occult conspiracy.

With this book, Satanic horror and the occult moved out of English mansions and mouldering castles and moved into modern day Manhattan.  The fantasy elements take place among an immediately recognisable contemporary backdrop.  The book was written and set in the mid-sixties and there are numerous references to the culture and events of the time.  This was very new at the time, before authors such as Stephen King anchored their ghostly imaginings with pop culture references and brand names.  The novel was a major best-seller in it's day, in no doubt helped by it's modern day references.  However, reading it now nearly 45 years later, it feels quite dated.  The book is very much a product of it's time, and some of the attitudes and language are quite un-PC  by modern standards.

The book is well written and well paced.  The horror elements are mostly downplayed for the majority of the book, with hints and insinuations cropping up here and there.  It's a novel of urban paranoia, pretty early on the reader comes to believe that pretty much everyone is against Rosemary, and nine times out of ten they are.  Here you have every reason to be suspicious of your neighbours, your husband and your friendly neighbourhood doctor, who comes so highly recommended.  One of the central set-pieces in the book is a memorable and skillfully written sequence where Rosemary believes that she is dreaming about being raped by the Devil (or is she dreaming), which collides with other dreams and memories to create a powerfully disturbing sequence.  There is also a lot of humour in the book, a lot of which does read like a weird kind of Woody Allen style New York comedy.  There's not a million miles between humour and horror, and both are very difficult to pull off well, and even more difficult to blend as well as the book does.  Another major theme in the book is religion.  Guy describes himself as an atheist and Rosemary describes herself as an agnostic, but the novel makes it clear that deep down she is a good small town Catholic girl.  There are a couple of references to the "God is Dead" controversy that was going on in the late sixties.  That may be so, the book says, but his opposite number is just getting started. 

Many people will know Rosemary's Baby best from the acclaimed 1968 movie version, directed by Roman Polanski and starring Mia Farrow as Rosemary and John Cassevetes as Guy.  The movie is remarkably faithful to the book, and fans of the movie will probably enjoy the novel and vice versa.  Ira Levin once stated that at one point in the book Guy makes a reference to buying a shirt after seeing it advertised in The New Yorker magazine and Polanski rang him up and asked Levin what issue of the magazine the shirt had been advertised in, and Levin had to admit that he had just made it up.

Ira Levin published a sequel, Son of Rosemary, in 1997.      

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