Thursday, February 12, 2009


Rosemary’s Baby is a 1967 horror novel by Ira Levin. Rosemary, a young woman, moves into a New York City apartment with her husband, an actor. Immediately, they are befriended by a stiflingly attentive older couple. Rosemary becomes pregnant. Mysterious things begin to happen, and Rosemary starts to suspect that her neighbors are Satanists, and that they want her baby.

Rosemary’s Baby is a horror novel in name only. The way Levin writes it, the entire concept feels thoroughly silly. And the novel’s climactic scene, with a bunch of senior citizens standing around muttering “Hail Satan,” is inadvertently comical. Levin throws in a “twist” ending here that is neither particularly shocking nor interesting, and it doesn’t improve the story one way or another. In any event, the reader is more likely to get upset about the way Rosemary gets pushed around than about any demonic conspiracy.

For this and other reasons, Rosemary’s Baby is surprisingly unsuspenseful. Levin bludgeons the reader with such a smorgasbord of clues that anyone paying attention knows exactly where things are going (except perhaps for Levin’s “twist” ending). And Rosemary herself is so slow or dull or oblivious or something that she doesn’t pick up on any of these clues for the majority of the novel. So for differing reasons, neither the reader nor the main character is in any kind of state of suspense for most of the book (with 30 pages remaining, the novel does pick up a tad). Readers have every right to expect better from Levin – some of his later works were considerably more suspenseful (his play Deathtrap being a good example).

One of the reasons this novel fails is because Levin does nothing to set the mood. Horror, as much as or perhaps more than any other genre, requires a great deal of atmosphere. It takes an immersive world to help the reader past the inherit ludicrousness of the horror premise. If your elderly neighbors strolled out in broad daylight, smiled, waved, and said “Hail Satan,” you would have a hard time taking them seriously.

Rosemary’s Baby is also tedious. The first half of it is rather slow, which is all right if the author is building atmosphere or foreshadowing events (there’s a big difference between ominous foreshadowing and X-marks-the-spot, neon-sign clues), but Rosemary mostly spends this time decorating the apartment, cooking dinner, and socializing. And ultimately, the reader may well wonder whether the book would have been considerably more interesting if Rosemary were paranoid, and the cult of Satanists only the product of her imagination.
Levin’s writing style is fine – it doesn’t stand out as particularly good or bad – but he has the annoying tendency to pluralize nonstandard words ending with “y” (like “Bloody Mary” and “by”) with apostrophes.

On the whole, Rosemary’s Baby is a clunking, clumsy novel filled with annoying characters. Don’t waste your time.