Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Bad Seed by William March (1954): So Young, So Bad

While the pop culture trope of the "evil child" didn't begin with The Bad Seed, eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark, the "bad seed" herself, certainly is the most perfect and classic example of it. Author William March's last novel - he didn't live to see any of its many incarnations - The Bad Seed was recognized upon publication as a major work of popular fiction, nominated for the 1955 National Book Award (Indeed, the NYT Book Review stated "no more satisfactory novel will be written in 1954 or has turned up in recent memory"). Today's reader can easily see why: March is a careful, precise writer who doles out suspense and psychological insights with a master's pen. Every character's motivation and dialogue rings true, every development seems necessary and tragically unavoidable. In fact, March was inspired by the real-life serial killer Belle Gunness when writing the novel, and references the case in the story.

What I found most fascinating about The Bad Seed is that, despite all the perceptive passages about Rhoda's behavior, we never hear the word sociopath. But March, who never graduated high school, has every facility describing the condition. Again and again he details the girl's detachment, her blithe dismissals of wrongdoing, blaming the behavior of her victims, her mastery of outward displays of normalcy and her seemingly innate ability to successfully manipulate everyone around her, child or adult: "...the lies she told were the heard, objectives lies of an adult whose purpose was to confound and mislead." I don't know when that word, sociopath, entered our daily lexicon; I'm only assuming it wasn't in use in the 1950s, which sounds about right. Basically this is Rhoda Penmark: a case study.

Actually the horror here is not in Rhoda's misdeeds but in the slow realization her mother, Christine, has as she looks back over Rhoda's young life - accidental deaths of pets, schoolfriends, a neighbor who possessed something Rhoda desired. No matter how Christine tries to rationalize their lives, Rhoda's crimes, her own duty to her daughter, the truth is is more harmful than she had imagined. Christine begins researching cases of murderous children and learns something about her very own youth, distant, half-submerged memories roiling beneath the surface. She finds comfort in writing long, self-examining letters to her husband and Rhoda's father Kenneth, who is away on business for most of the story, but she never mails them: I feel now more strongly than ever that the problem of Rhoda is not the joint one I considered it. The problem is mine, and I must solve it alone...

One adult does see through Rhoda's machinations, and suspects her in the death of  Claude Daigle, a classmate who drowned during a summer picnic Rhoda attended. Leroy Jessup is the crude, angry, resentful repairman who tends the apartment building the Penmarks live in. He constantly makes "Zzzzz! Zzzz!" sounds at her - imitating the "little pink electric chair" where bad little girls are sent. Brilliantly, March adds that Leroy "would have been surprised to know that, in a sense, he was in love with the little girl, and that his persecution of her, his nagging concern with everything she did, was part of a perverse and frightened courtship." Oh, man, that's good stuff.

Reading The Bad Seed is good, satisfying fun, perfect for a chill on a hot summer afternoon. Characters like Monica Breedlove, the landlady and Christine's bestie, are wholly convincing; Ms. Breedlove's love of psychotherapy and social gatherings afford her plenty of opportunity to "armchair" analyze the despondent Christine (although she has no idea what truly is upsetting the concerned mother). Then there is Reginald, a writer, to whom Christine confides about her interest in very young female serial killers in the guise of writing a novel. His morbid wit:  Some murderers, particularly the distinguished ones who were going to make great names for themselves, usually started in childhood; they showed their genius early, just as outstanding poets, mathematicians, and musicians did. He gives her lots to read about these cases, and we learn that Christine's own father, a war journalist, had written extensively on one Bessie Denker...

Bessie Denker is another great character, but we meet her only at a remove. Denker had a long, successful career as a killer from childhood. She even raised a family, but that didn't dampen her desire for killing and gaining land, money, possessions. Christine is fascinated by the story, and the narcissistic arrogance which led to her downfall.

It was doubtful that she ever regretted the things she'd done, or thought with remorse of her acts. She probably regarded herself not as a criminal but as a cunning little businesswoman who traveled in an unusual line of merchandise, whose foresight and skill lifted her above the fates of those less gifted than herself...

No doubt about it: The Bad Seed is a first-rate psychological thriller, an unassuming yet wonderful bit of murderous merchandise itself, written with skill and insight, a small masterpiece of down-home horror that I urge you to become acquainted with at once!

6 comments:

Josh Caporale said...

Wow, I'm surprised I never heard or this or of William March. Thank you for introducing me and I will surely have to search for this one.

Luis said...

I had heard of the movie but never knew it was based on a novel. I'm definitely NOT a fan of the "evil kids" sub-genre but in this case I will gladly make an exception and pick this one up if I come across it. Thanks for the tip, and a great review by the way.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks, guys. The movie is on TCM all the time but I've never seen it. Apparently the endings are quite different. Still I need to check it out now.

Ron Clinton said...

This is a book I keep meaning to pick up and read, but there's always something else... Your review pounded home the point that I need to get this thing read, as it sounds even better than I'd been led to believe.

highwayknees said...

I am ashamed to say, as a horror aficionado, that I have never read the novel. But it's prob because I've seen the original movie vers. so many times that I can quote many lines. It is something of a gay film buff's "camp clasic", stagey and over-acted to the hilt (the same exact cast was on Broadway in the play, and it shows!) But oddly, due to the performance of little Patty McCormick in the lead role, who chews the scenery with a vengence, it is still chilling, and gets under your skin.
And Rhoda's role is only topped by the hysterical,in more ways than one, performance by the actress Nancy Kelly-in the mothe's role. A real laugh riot! And compelling as Hell. Watch it NOW. You will thank me later. Of course this is all only if you have a penchant for old TCM type classics. I realize that some of you young whipper-snappers dont . lol

Will Errickson said...

Actually I knew about its "gay film buff" camp status as it featured in an episode of HBO's Six Feet Under, when a group of gay men gathered to watch it. I've seen random scenes from it--pretty faithful to the novel, altho' there's nothing campy about March's approach.