Thursday, June 3, 2010

Rosemary's Baby (1967) and The Stepford Wives (1972) by Ira Levin: Only Women Bleed?

One of the great sequences in horror - literature or film - is when Rosemary Woodhouse, protagonist of Rosemary's Baby, uses the letter tiles from a Scrabble board game to discover the true identity of her kindly old neighbor. Polanski, in his film adaptation, underlines these utterly prosaic and harmless everyday items with portent, but it was author Ira Levin who first created such a richly creepy, and yet playful and knowing, scenario. All of them witches indeed.

Although Levin also wrote traditional suspense novels and popular plays (his Tony-winning Deathtrap from 1978 is still highly regarded and plays continually), and neither Rosemary's Baby (originally published 1967) nor The Stepford Wives (1972) are solely horror novels, he deserves recognition within the field for creating such lasting pop culture horror icons as a mother who gives birth to Satan's child (sorry, that wasn't really a spoiler for anybody, was it?), and especially in the latter's case where simply referring to someone as a "Stepford wife" - or, indeed, a Stepford husband or anybody else - means that person is an unwitting or mindless slave to conformity and empty bourgeois values.

Both books fall into the how-we-live-now style of fiction and address contemporary mores: secular versus spiritual lifestyles and motherhood in Rosemary's Baby, feminism and the role of women in the home in Stepford Wives. Their datedness - not nearly as prevalent as one might think - only enhances their charm. Levin is a master of economical prose, understatement, and sleight-of-hand misdirection as he doles out the clues and plot twists. Paranoia figures largely, out in the suburbs and within the city, and menace can be found anywhere, over idle chat and coffee, sitting in a doctor's waiting room, when your husband goes off to work. They never stop, these Stepford Wives... they work like robots all their lives...

I love that both novels can be read either as totally straight thrillers or as black-comedies-of-manners. And while a superficial interpretation might convince some that Levin disdains women, I think it's rather obvious that he is really condemning men and the fact that they think women with any kind of power will diminish their own. Irony: it's good for the blood, no?

I read Rosemary's Baby in high school, after I watched its masterful movie adaptation (surely the most faithful of all movie adaptations!); Stepford Wives only in the last few years after falling for Katharine Ross and (especially) Paula Prentiss in that bittersweetly vintage 1975 film adaptation. The novels can be undertaken in a couple sittings and offer up numerous pleasures, a few chills and ironic grins, and are easily found in used bookstores everywhere, so why you'd want to pay $14 for a new trade paperback edition of books around 200 pages long is a mystery Levin himself certainly wouldn't deign to write. Especially when you can get that ridiculous Gothic-romance version of Stepford Wives, because what all men secretly desire are women in shapeless gowns colored like M&Ms.

7 comments:

Rabid Fox said...

Loved Rosemary's Baby when I read it (reviewed it lhere). And the film is one of the very few Polanski films I can still enjoy without thinking of his child-raping carcass.

Haven't gotten around to reading Stepford Wives yet, but it is on my shelf. One of these days. :) That Ira Levin certainly seems to know how to build tension.

Will Errickson said...

Levin is a terrific at suspense. I need to find a copy of The Boys from Brazil, thought the movie was good fun. I started A Kiss Before Dying years ago but was reading it while I moved and misplaced my copy. It'll turn up someday!

Joe Monster said...

Very nice post. I don't have The Stepford Wives but I am planning on reading and reviewing my copy of Rosemary's Baby (it's the same edition as the third one you have posted here). I've always wanted to see Deathtrap actually staged. I'm really excited to start getting into Levin's stuff. Great work!

highwayknees said...

Will, you really are getting deep into the good stuff these days huh? All of Levin is worth a read-but of course these two are the gold standard! A KISS BEFORE DYING is a lot of fun. There's also a movie version with JoAnne Woodward and Robert Wagner! Also check out his novel THIS PERFECT DAY. More of a sci-fi than horror ,but still good!

Fernando Brambila O. said...

Levin is one of my favorite writers, and despite the fact that his books are still popular (through I think in many cases it's the movie adaptation or the concept, rather than the book) I think he doesn't quite the credit he deserves for his contribution not just to genre literature (as in horror, science-fiction and, I guess, thriller), but to literature in general. I've read all of his novels, and started moving to his stage-plays. He juggled several genres, and it's true that at core his works are satire, through with the darkest kind of humor. All I can add to the previous comments is that his last two novels, "Sliver" and "Son of Rosemary" are also worth a look --the first is much better than the movie adaptation would make you think. The second was interesting in that it basically spoofs the "Satanic thriller" genre that his own "Rosemary's Baby" helped cement.

Will Errickson said...

I have copies of A KISS BEFORE DYING and BOYS FROM BRAZIL but haven't read them. Levin is a master, and underrated, you are right Fernando!

Fernando Brambila O. said...

If you ever do get around to reading them, I'd love to read your thoughts on those books (well, I and probably a lot of people); I remember the first one being impressive for a first novel (through, inevitably it had somewhat dated gender politics) and the second, just like these two books managing to be chilling and subtly satiric at once.