Book Review: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967)


Ira Levin wrote a classic book that came out in the summer of 1967 and went on to become an instant hit at the bestsellers list. In a foreword by Otto Penzler, he writes:

Levin was not a believer—not in any organized religion, not Satanism, not witchcraft, not in any of the myths or charismatic real-life figures who have engendered worship. In fact, he had rather hoped that his novel would help to increase the skepticism that had always resided with him. It wasn’t to be.

The summary of Levin’s mentality that propagated him to inscribe the classic horror novel might have been to slash the quacks associated with Satanism, Alternate Religion, Devil Worshippers, and such widely intriguing concepts that have absorbed horror fanatics and skeptics of religion for a long time. What resulted was of course, as expected, increased fascination into the already beguiling topic of Satanism and the underground society of Satanic Covens. We could say that the popularity and the ensuing leapfrog into these occult phenomena defeated the purpose of Levin’s work. Yet in doing so—not only did Ira Levin produce a classic in the genre of horror and mystery, but also handed the likes of Stephen King further incentive to venture into this genre that might date back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula for creating a character that is arguably the greatest modern fiction character in the history of Western Literature. Fortunately, for us, it kick started a plethora of horror fiction and characters that live on until today rivaling the hymns of religion and God, whilst shaping the world of fiction into two poles of white and black—led by God on one side and Satan on the other side. Simply ironic, isn’t it?

For a book that has lived on for 47 years, and counting, the plot of Rosemary’s Baby would hardly be anything but unknown. Accelerated by the movie adaptation by Roman Polanski, in an as exact manner as he could, Rosemary’s Baby had now transformed from a state of visual imagination to a state of visual reality. The movie itself went on to become a feather in the hat of horrors in film and without much hesitation; it is one of the best movies from the lens of Roman Polanski. Saying all of that, this piece is hardly about the movie. It is about the prose that Levin created from his own imagination and observation of the world around him—as a critic of such forms of religion and as an inscriber of imagination, one of the best in the game.

The story begins with a couple, Guy Woodhouse and Rosemary Woodhouse in search of a new house to begin a new phase in their lives. They come across an old Victorian-styled Gothic house at Bradford in New York. The catch, of course, is that the house carries its own air of controversies and a history of witchcraft and devil worshipping. Aesthetics override logic; the lovey-dovey couple decides it’s the house for them. Once they grace the architecture of the classic house, realities change for both, with Guy flourishing in his career, and poor Rosemary spiraling into a dreaded circle amidst witchcraft that promises to take away her unborn baby; thereby shattering her life, or so it seems…

Ira Levin has an exquisite style of writing, minimalist without wasting words and getting to the point as quickly as he can. When he does describe the atmosphere and surroundings in detail, you’d wonder what clues is he giving you, or how it would all work out in the end. This is what sets apart Rosemary’s Baby. Being a horror novel, it barely exposes the horrific elements rather plays with the psyche of your personality, through Rosemary who is the central character. Laying down a set of omens, signs, and symbols, Levin places warnings as steps and as you climb on them, ultimately—you reach the point of no return. Midway through the book, I realized that the story doesn’t have anything drastic and such apparent episodes in a horror sense. It isn’t there, but it’s still eerie. It doesn’t freak the muscles out of you; it just keeps you hooked. With his limited omniscient narrator point-of-view, the writer makes you observe situations around, the environment, and notice the tiny odd details that may as well work as the biggest points in taking the story further and building to an unexpected and nervy climax.

In the build up to all of this, Levin is somewhat cagey. When things do fall into their place at the start of the second act, the story runs rampant almost difficult to keep track of the page count as I found myself turning it in rapid succession myself. With a visual style of writing, you could imagine the happenings quite astutely, almost as if it were a movie because Levin aids in this with a staunch grip over what he wants to show, what he wants us to know, and how he intends to take it further. My visual tubes were flying in imagination when reading this horror classic; engrossing would be the correct term.

Throughout the book, the reader will find dark undertones hidden under the normal lives the couple seems to live. Almost too dark, and I don’t want to spoil it for anybody, the narration persuades you to root for Rosemary in this house filled with a myriad of perplexing personas. At one point, you’d wonder who is sane and who is not; who is evil and who is good. The interactions between Rosemary and Guy (her husband) irritated me to no end, not because it was uninteresting or melodramatic. It was weirdly interesting and alarmingly freaky, but mainly because of the cold and distant behavior of Guy towards Rosemary indifferent to her woes, or perhaps even blind and suspending of Rosemary’s troubles. Add to that, the chilly twists, and the creepy mannerisms and auguries, I would be lying if I said I didn’t look around while reading this novel midnight all alone in my house!

Rosemary’s Baby is a distinct exhibition in genre of horrors. Not too long, not short, it is the right length and never once will you feel jaded reading this book. For the style Levin uses, clarity, precision, and matter of fact, the sequences are enthralling and keep you occupied throughout. For avid or selective readers, both, Rosemary’s Baby is the perfect go-to book if you want something clear-cut and interesting. Filled with motifs and almost ridiculing the phenomenon of vibes, signs, and textbook manuals into Witchcraft and Wizardry, Levin’s original purpose might have been to debunk the myth of Satanism and Superstitions, but this novel has only enhanced the curiosity of viewers, especially lovers of horrors and mysteries.

The final pages of the book could have been better. It’s one fault I found and as stimulating as the entire book is, the last wee pages didn’t live up to the gigantic expectations I was carrying towards a mammoth climax—perhaps rivaling Dracula, Frankenstein, and Jekyll and Hyde. It doesn’t pull the book down for me though, maybe slightly, but the climax is unexpected and startling—pulled off with a vivre of enchantment, so it has its own merits and gives a fresh look into things contrasting to what Levin coaxed me to expect. At one point, I was almost worried that all of it would turn farcical, and that is how much the book influenced me as a reader…

Rosemary’s Baby is a tense horror ride until the end and engrains the reader with a paranoid outlook even after you’ve finished reading the book. It is tautly written; exploring much more than the world of devils and spirits, whilst giving us an insight into the psyche of humans and the pervasiveness of ulterior dark arts in our so-called age of Science. A must read book for all readers, especially for aspiring writers of fiction because the second act of the book might be the most interesting pieces of stories, and a rarity that the build to the finality rivals the finality itself in anticipation, execution, and intrigue. Just read it!