Inspiring Older Readers
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
It’s taken me a long time to get around to reading this book because the 1968 movie adaptation by Roman Polanski casts such a long shadow. I’m not a big fan of the more grizzly end of the horror film genre – you can keep all your chain saws and psycho killers as far as I’m concerned. I do however like a ‘spooky’ movie every now and then and Rosemary’s Baby has often been my go-to entertainment when I’m in such a mood.
I’m also leery about the relationship between books and films – I simply won’t see some adaptations of my favourite books because I just know something essential is going to get gutted or some eccentric reinterpretation will blight my memory of what I’ve read and loved. So I actually started reading Levin’s original novel expecting that I would find much more there than is in the film but, to my surprise, the movie must be one of the most faithful adaptations of a book ever made. Names aren’t changed; there are no additional characters; with the exception of one small scene, all the action is in-tact and chronologically correct; even the vast majority of the dialogue Levin has written into the book finds its way into the film.
Levin’s prose is simple and easy to read – the book is a classic page turner – and his skill at building tension even survives the fact that I know exactly what’s going to happen. Watching the story unfold and being unable to step in and stop events actually enhances the pulse rate rather than diminishing it.
The story at one level is rather straightforward pulp fare. Newly married young couple, Rosemary and Guy, move into a big, old and characterful apartment in New York despite warnings from a friend that it has a decidedly dark history – deaths, suicides and dark happenings litter its past. The couple find themselves in a community of elderly but friendly people and get ‘adopted’ by the smothering but slightly spooky couple of 70 somethings – Roman and Minnie Castavet. Guy, a struggling actor, seems to become beguiled by the old couple and spends a lot of time with them while Rosemary is more circumspect – especially as she hears muffled sounds of chanting and music coming from somewhere in the building. Rosemary wants to get pregnant but when it happens it’s not how she imagined it would – after seeming to pass out from too much drink she has a terrible nightmare that she’s been raped by a monster of some kind and wakes to find Guy apologising for having had rough sex with her while she was unconscious.
We then get the nightmare details of Rosemary’s terrible pregnancy, the mysterious death of her closest friend, Hutch, after he’d fallen into a coma and accidents that advance Guy’s faltering career. Everywhere she turns Minnie and Roman are there to ‘help her’, even arranging for her to have the services of the very best and most expensive doctor in New York. Rosemary starts to suspect something is not right and when she discovers that Hutch has left her a book suggesting that she’s fallen into the clutches of a witches coven she starts to freak out. Her pregnancy is going very badly and she’s in constant chronic pain until suddenly, just before the birth, the pain stops.
Drugged and barely sensible she gives birth (painfully) and wakes to be told the child didn’t survive. Emotionally she knows it isn’t true and thinks that the coven have stolen the baby for their own rituals. Breaking into Minnie and Roman’s flat she finds the coven collected (Guy is there with them) and a baby in a cradle that has demon eyes. She’s told at this point that she’s been the one chosen to be the mother of Satan’s son. The book ends with Rosemary holding the child in her arms after being overwhelmed by maternal love.
So is there anything more to this book than a great read with a superb underlying frisson? Looking at other reviews I have found readers who are capable of seeing all manner of meanings embedded in the story. Is this a story of yuppie anxiety? Is it a fable about what the maternal urge does to women? Is this really about mental ill-health and has Rosemary fallen into a delusion? I’ve seen all these things postulated. Truthfully though, I don’t go for any of this. I’m more than happy to accept it’s nothing more than a brilliantly written supernatural thriller and what you see is what you get. In this respect it sits in a perfectly respectable tradition that also encompasses the ghost story and the supernatural.
This is, I think, a book without complex dimensions. Just sit down for an afternoon and enjoy it.