Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Weird & Wonderful: Rosemary's Baby

For City Lit's Weird & Wonderful Halloween selection, we read Ira Levin's “Rosemary's Baby” (1967), noted for its 1968 Polanski film adaptation (and apparently an upcoming miniseries, as well). Considered a modern horror classic and a turning point in the genre, creating or at least popularizing a certain vein of religiously-colored horror, it reads now as a bit dated in some repsects, suprisingly fresh in others.

Our conversation circled around a few major points:
  • Witches Are Silly (no offense, Actual Witches)
  • “Workmanlike Prose”
  • Spookiness & Lack of Spookiness
A good discussion, as always, and pleased to welcome some new folks to the club as well. Total spoilers below.

Let's just get that spoiler out of the way: Satan. Satan is Rosemary's baby-daddy. Done. After moving to a new apartment, Rosemary's husband, an aspiring actor, makes a deal with their Satanist neighbors to let them use Rosemary to bear Satan's child in return for fame. The horror in the book largely revolves around Rosemary's slow deduction of this plot, reinforced with paranoia & helplessness.

The silliness here lies mainly in the Satanism & witchcraft, which we talked about for a bit—would this have been more plausible or scary at the time of publication? Have we become desensitized, and/or just more secular/less superstitiously Christian? Some of the more effective spookiness here revolves around suspicion of “secret activities”, and we wondered if that might have resonated with McCarthyism or Nazi-hunting, the latter of which was certainly a fear Levin later voiced in “The Boys from Brazil” (1976).

"Workmanlike Prose" was the euphemism we introduced even before this actual club, to describe Levin's style. However, it's not so much "bad" as "absent"--I was reminded of a line I originally heard applied to Kevin Smith's films--"his style is that he has no style." And, for "Rosemary's Baby" at least, that means the prose effectively disappears; it's very journalistic, and mostly only reports external actions and descriptions, closely tracking Rosemary's character, which actually works very well to build up the suspense with a minimum of internal melodrama. We get reaction shots, not descriptions of emotions.

Terry is supposed to look
like Anna Maria Alberghetti,
which reference was mostly
lost on us modern readers.
Levin is also surprisingly good at sketching out a cast of characters with very sparse prose--even secondary or minor characters come across pretty clearly. We liked Hutch, and wondered if a modern version of the story wouldn't have cast him in the "gay best friend" trope instead of the "older mentor" type--I was reminded of some of Heinlein's author-avatar characters. And personally I would cast Anthony Stewart Head. Clearly.

Outside of some cultural references--mostly film & theatre--the novel is fairly timeless, not overly dated, by virtue of how tightly it focuses on a few characters. A few of us had to look up toreador pants. They're capris!

The most effective horror elements for us modern readers were essentially the sexist elements. There are glimmers of Rosemary's independence here--her time at the cabin, her decision to divorce guy if he doesn't shape up, her circle of friends who briefly seem to offer help--but by and large she's completely controlled by her husband, unable to really say no to anything. Guy's cover story for the Satan-impregnation is more terrifying than the demonic reality, particularly since Rosemary seems to accept it--that Guy merely violently raped her while she was unconscious, since they were trying for a baby and he "didn't want to miss it". We also discussed how the suspense before the reveal (even though we all kind of knew the reveal ahead of time) is effective because we kind of want a non-supernatural explanation: either Guy is gaslighting Rosemary, abusive and/or adulterous, or he's actually not the villain, and Rosemary's perception of reality is going screwy for some reason. Either situation is, in a way, both more plausible and more scary than, you know, Satan.

Much debate over how exactly to read the ending, with some of us seeing Rosemary getting a kind of comeuppance, placing herself as a central figure in the conspiracy--the Mother and perhaps sort of crown-regent to the young Antichrist, rather than just a dupe or a pawn. Her rejection of Guy, and over-ruling of Roman's attempt to name the child, is a sudden flip of power in the room.

However, some of us found it hard to suspend our disbelief over Rosemary's sudden transition to ├╝ber-mom, or even connected it to some of the horror and lack of agency throughout the novel--that Rosemary, who has been controlled completely against her will, who has been brutally tortured by this pregnancy, would suddenly turn into a caricature of motherhood at the mere sight of her (monstrous) child.

Couldn't help wondering if the "use Scrabble letters to solve an anagram" trope started here, with Rosemary figuring out Hutch's cryptic message about her neighbor's anagramatic name. Couldn't help but think of that "Seatec Astronomy" scene from "Sneakers" (1992).

The Dakota was used for exterior shots
in the film.
We talked a bit about "The Bramford", the apartment in the novel--"The Bram" possibly a reference to "The Stoker".

That led us to talking about the film version for a while, noting both its excellence qua film but also that it is more spoiler-y, less ambiguous than the novel. Then we got into a long aside about the ethics of supporting work by morally questionable or reprehensible artists.

We talked for a while about horror film, horror techniques regardless of genre (such as the "don't show, imply" rule), and about "Rosemary's Baby" and its long legacy of (often terrible) horror pulling on Christian tropes.

A good discussion as per usual! Next time for Weird & Wonderful, we're reading Emily St. John Mandel's "Station 11" (2014), but we actually won't be meeting until the first week of December to avoid Thanksgiving conflicts.

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