Book Review: 'Rosemary's Baby' by Ira Levin

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

Cover photo of Ira Levin's 'Rosemary's Baby' featuring a baby in a bassinet reaching for an inverted flaming crucifix

With Halloween just fading over the horizon, it's unlikely you've gone through a "classic" horror film list that hasn't mentioned Rosemary's Baby. Its creeping paranoia and careful balancing of Satanic panic, lurking witches, and the over-protective nature of an expectant mother have made it an enduring legend of a horror film -- but despite the film's success, relatively few people have read the book.

The film is a remarkably faithful adaptation, possibly the most faithful blockbuster adaptation ever, so much so that reading the book after viewing the film inevitably conjures Mia Farrow's pretty, blonde accommodativeness, Ruth Gordon's abrasive invasiveness, and John Cassavetes's ruthless ambition and self-loathing. The Bramford, named for perhaps the quintessential horror writer Bram Stoker, looms over the page -- the dream home, the nightmare prison. For those who haven't seen it, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse are a young couple who snap up the chance to rent an exclusive apartment in an old New York building, one with a sinister reputation. The neighbours are friendly, perhaps overly so, but Rosemary is keen to be obliging as her husband struggles to prove himself beyond a mediocre actor.

Mine is an old edition from 1968x: I'd like to say that I unearthed it in a lesser-known second-hand bookshop but it was an eBay find. Those old books -- thick yet limp paper, small font, familiar type, folds and collapses around your hand -- are, to me, an integral aspect of transporting the reader into the period. Author Levin completed the book in August 1966. The summer had been a bad one: Charles Whitman shot forty-three people, killing thirteen as well as his wife and mother; Braniff Flight 250 crashed and killed all forty-two on-board. Monsters such as burgeoning serial killer Kenneth McDuff might have denied the rationale of human, but human devils were infiltrating a public consciousness. A sense of real authentic place is conjured in Rosemary's Baby by less morbid details, such as name-dropping contemporary actors, plays and events.

Ira Levin later wrote The Stepford Wives, perhaps a more overt indictment of the patriarchal dismissal of women. In The Stepford Wives, a narrative so pervasive that the phrase has entered common usage. Like Rosemary, the Wives are subsumed under expectations of femininity and their own self erased. Rosemary is a vessel for the baby inside her, and so while Guy brushes away her anxieties about the characters that have surrounded her, Rosemary is also robbed of her autonomy to her own body. The night of conception is doubly assaulting -- what she believes to have happened and what actually has are both repellent -- but as the foetus grows Rosemary's pain is not only ignored but dismissed as of no consequence.

Rosemary's Baby is arguably the perfect Halloween novel. The supernatural jostles with cultists, and above it all rises the niggling suggestion that perhaps it is all in her mind. The Gothic building, the creepy basement, the death-laden history, the poring over ancient texts, those small touches that tip precariously from one side to another (could a swapped tie really reveal involvement with evil beings?) are all so evocative as to ensconce the reader in a particular place and state, where those you trust the most are the most likely to turn against you.

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