Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor-husband, Guy, move into the Bramford, an old New York City apartment building with an ominous reputation and only elderly residents. Neighbours Roman and Minnie Castavet soon come nosing around to welcome them; despite Rosemary’s reservations about their eccentricity and the weird noises that she keeps hearing, her husband starts spending time with them. Shortly after Guy lands a plum Broadway role, Rosemary becomes pregnant, and the Castavets start taking a special interest in her welfare.
As the sickened Rosemary becomes increasingly isolated, she begins to suspect that the Castavets’ circle is not what it seems…
I picked up a copy of Ira Levin’s famed novel, Rosemary’s Baby, purely on a whim the other week. I was visiting my home town for the first time in over two years (thanks, Covid) and popped into Waterstones. This particular branch has expanded and greatly improved its horror section in recent years and as the poor selection of horror on offer was something my younger self always complained about, I was determined that I wasn’t going to leave the shop emptyhanded.
I watched the movie adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby about 10 years ago and the only thing I really remembered was a horrifically eerie and unnerving moment when Rosemary is walking around her seemingly empty apartment and two men sneak across the hallway behind her in a really creepy, exaggerated way. I was watching the movie with my then housemate and I distinctly remember her saying, “Eugh, that’s horrible.” That’s not a plot point, though. That’s just cinematography. Aside from that one scene, I literally remembered nothing about the movie, so I wasn’t too sure what to expect from the book. Aside from the fact that the titular character’s father is Satan, I didn’t know anything about it.
Books written in bygone eras don’t always age that well, and dated and offensive terms and ideas often stop me from enjoying said books. I get that such terms and ideas – be they racist, homophobic, misogynistic etc – perhaps reflect views of the time, but those views were still wrong and offensive, even back then. I often feel uncomfortable reading the works of authors who casually threw around grossly offensive terms like they were confetti because I know that they believed they were right in using those terms. I’m loathe to put my time and energy into reading something produced by a person who believed that romantic love couldn’t exist between any two people other than a man and woman, or that people of colour didn’t deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity that they themselves were treated with. To cut a long, rambling paragraph short, I fully expected Rosemary’s Baby to be problematic.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find that author Ira Levin was surprisingly forward thinking for a man approaching middle age in the 1960s. There’s a passage in which Rosemary’s husband Guy tells her that he “didn’t want to miss Baby Night [baby making night]” despite the fact that she had passed out earlier in the evening and was unconscious. Rosemary is rightly horrified to hear this, telling Guy that she feels “funny” about him “doing that way”, while she was unconscious. Rosemary’s Baby was published in 1967, eight years before Nebraska became the first US state to outlaw what it termed marital sexual assault, and even though all states had made changes to their marital rape laws by 1993, even today, some states still treat marital and non-marital rape as two separate things (info sourced from Wikipedia). To find Levin openly denouncing marital rape in his book gave me the impression that he was ahead of his time. Obviously, this impression of him is based on one book alone, but it’s certainly encouraged me to read more of his work.
In terms of the actual story itself, Rosemary’s Baby is outstanding and I can hand-on-heart say that it’s one of the best psychological horror novels that I’ve ever read. There’s this sense of dread and anxiety that builds up over the course of the book and reaches breaking point in the final few chapters. Moreover, the fact that the book’s mostly set in Rosemary and Guy’s home makes it even more terrifying. Our homes are where we’re supposed to be the most safe. Our homes our sanctuaries, protecting us against the elements and those who want to do us harm. When that latter threat is suddenly inside our home, we’re left with nowhere to run and that is a truly terrifying thought. In summary, Rosemary’s Baby is a nail-bitingly tense, on-the-edge-of-your-seat read and I highly recommend it to any fan of classic horror.
My partner and I watched the movie adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby last night (and that scene with the men creeping across the hallway still got me all these years later), so watch out for a post next week comparing it and the book.