Ira Levin may have only written a handful of novels but the names of his works are instantly recognisable. Whilst the likes of Sliver remind many of the terrible Sharon Stone film, Levin’s two most famous works, The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby, are considered pop-fiction classics. In fact, the moulds for both are practically identical: young married couple move to seemingly ideal neighbourhood, husband fits in quickly whilst wife (protagonist) has misgivings and suspects things aren’t quite idyllic as they appear. However, where The Stepford Wives is a satire in the guise of a thriller, Rosemary’s Baby is pure unashamed gothic horror.
At a brisk 229 pages, you could be forgiven for thinking Rosemary’s Baby is a little on the short side, but it would also be damming the book with undue criticism. Where some authors would spend pages dealing with the everyday activities of their characters, Levin does away with them in a sentence. He doesn’t feel the need to bog the reader down with unnecessary baggage and economises the narrative to its bare bones. This economy works wonders, keeping the novel at a brisk pace whilst ensuring that only the essential elements remain intact.
As such, it becomes apparent that something is amiss from the start. Whilst the first third of the book reads like romantic drama akin to Truman Capote, there are many oddities that give Rosemary cause for concern. What’s the deal with the Tannis root charm her neighbours have gifted to her? Why have said neighbours taken a keen interest in her pregnancy? Why has her husband’s acting career suddenly taken off after years of struggle? And what relevance does the building’s dogged history of accidental death have on the new life she’s made for herself?
Such questions are asked and often quickly dismissed, a genius move on Levin’s part as it casually plants the seeds of suspicion, slowly amplifying the growing dread in a steady and meticulous manner. It also helps that Rosemary is portrayed as the epitome of loveliness, and when her predicament worsens, you can’t help but feel vulnerable. The speedy build-up to the final reveal may throw some who have been drawn in by the novel’s measured pace, but it’s hard to argue when Levin has spent the majority of the book successfully creeping under the reader’s skin.
Whilst he’s not exclusively a horror writer, Ira Levin can stand proud with Rosemary’s Baby. Outdoing many a horror author at their own game, the novel is guaranteed to chill and contains one of the most haunting finales in fiction. The prose may be outdated by today’s standards but the motif of the extraordinary amongst the ordinary is a devise that has aged well.
If old school gothic chills are your thing, then Rosemary’s Baby is a winner.