Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin
Pan – 1974 (Originally published 1967)
I saw the movie version of Rosemary’s Baby a long time ago, and I knew that it was considered to be a faithful adaptation, so I wasn’t expecting many surprises when I got around to reading the book. While the book’s plot is pretty much identical to the movie, knowing how things were going to end only allowed me to further appreciate the way Levin structured his novel. There’s lots of seemingly irrelevant little things that happen throughout the story that end up having a big impact later on, and this novel is so masterfully written that it was still exciting to read knowing how it was going to end. The pacing and suspense at work here are awesome. This is thrilling stuff.
Maternal instinct is a primal and powerful thing, and Levin uses it to fuel this high tension nightmare. I remember reading a quote from Kurt Vonnegut about how good authors should be sadists and that a good protagonist must suffer if they are to relatable. I don’t know if Levin got this idea from Vonnegut, but he certainly believes in it. Rosemary is never presented in an even remotely negative light, but Levin forces her through devastating trauma.
I assume that most of my readers know how this story ends, but in case you don’t, I’m going to discuss that now, so read the book before you read the next paragraph.
I had a strange reaction to the climatic ending of this novel. All of Rosemary’s nightmares come true. She has given birth to the spawn of Satan, but that maternal instinct kicks in and she quickly comes to accept her child’s faults and commits to being a good mother to him. My personal response to this was relief. As a parent, I don’t want to read about any child being abandoned, abused or ignored, and while I don’t consider myself a Satanist, I am sympathetic to their cause. I also read most of this book with my kindle in one hand and my newborn daughter in the other. When Rosemary refers to her son as Andy Candy in the book’s final lines, I felt a sense of joy and relief.
Rosemary’s Baby works so well because 95% of the novel is entirely believable. The characterisation is great. A woman’s first pregnancy is an exciting but uncertain time, and it often happens around the same time that she moves into a new home. Apart from the Satan stuff, many, many people have very similar experiences to Rosemary. It’s really only in the last moments of the novel that Rosemary’s fears are confirmed and the supernatural establishes itself as a governing force in the story.
Son of Rosemary
Onyx – 1998 (Originally published 1997)
Writing a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby had to have been a complicated process. It was impossible to continue the narrative in the same mundane world where most of the first novel takes place. Some of the events in the original novel, the Pope’s visit to New York for example, actually occurred. Setting the sequel in reality wouldn’t have worked. Readers can’t buy into neighbourly dining room conversations if they know the speakers are warlocks and witches. To deal with this issue Levin sets Son of Rosemary in a weird alternate universe.
In 1999, Rosemary wakes up from a coma after 20 something years. (She had been poisoned by the Satanists after planning to run away with her son.) The world she finds herself in is a strange place. It’s basically the late 1990s as they really were, except for the past few years, everyone on Earth has been idolising a guy named Andy. This Andy chap is being credited with bringing about world peace, and everyone really loves him. Rosemary quickly realises that this is her son, and the two have a high profile reunion on live TV.
The astute reader will quickly realise that Andy is the Antichrist prophecised in the Book of Revelation, but Andy swears to his mother that he has turned his back on evil and has dedicated his life to doing good. I started to see through his ploy once he tried to have sex with his mom.
Yep, a good chunk of this book is this Andy chap trying to get Rosemary to have sex with him.
Ok, I’ll imagine most of you have already read the book or decided not to read it based on what I’ve just told you. If you don’t fall into either of those categories, you might want to skip the next bit because I’m about to discuss the ending. I warn you though, this is a shit book that isn’t worth reading. A spoiler can’t make it much worse.
The ending of Son of Rosemary is perhaps the worst ending to a novel that I have ever read. After Andy has brought about the apocalypse and Rosemary is descending into Hell, she wakes up to discover that everything that happened over the course of the two novels was actually a dream. What the fuck? Ira Levin was a good writer. How the Hell did he think it was ok to end a book like that? Did he contract acute Alzheimer’s as he was concluding the book and revert back to grade 3 writing? It was all a dream? Piss off. If a 12 year old ended a story like that I’d kick them. Honestly, the ending to this was so bad that it actually made me like the original book less. Do not read this insane piece of garbage.
Signet – 1994 (Originally published 1972)
Before reading the Rosemary books, I read Levin’s The Stepford Wives. This is another very famous book, but I had luckily avoided ever finding out what it was about. It’s a bit like Rosemary’s Baby in that both books finish with a shocking revelation for the female protagonist. It’s the kind of book that works better the less you know about it, so I’m not going to say much else other than that I really enjoyed it. It’s quick, exciting and creepy in a unique way. You should definitely read it if you haven’t already.
I don’t think any of Levin’s other books are horror novels, but Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives were so good that I fully intend on reading more his stuff in the future.