(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)
By Amy Garvey, author of COLD KISS
I love to be scared, and always have. Even as a kid, nothing was better than the possibility of a ghost, or a big old abandoned house with a rotting porch, choked in ivy. Weird, unexplained, otherworldly, I wanted it. I loved the BOO, and the unknown thing in the dark, and the icy fingers walking up my spine.
But one of the books that scared me the most, on a gut level, doesn’t even look like a horror story on the surface: Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby.
It’s 1960s Manhattan, and a young couple is moving into a bigger apartment now that Guy, an actor, is making some money. For Rosemary, a Midwestern Catholic girl, it’s the next step in her dream—space and income enough for her and Guy to start a family. Despite her sheltered upbringing, Rosemary has always longed for the wonders of the wider world, and with Guy she’s found the perfect combination of exotic big city chic and homey domesticity.
It’s a fantastic novel, and a beautiful piece of writing, something I would teach if I taught writing. Levin sets up everything so precisely, so believably, with just the right language and detail; nothing more or less than the reader needs to know is offered. It’s a mid-century fairy tale with a sweetly vulnerable but stubborn heroine, and Levin makes it completely satisfying to read about Rosemary’s plans for her new home, a gorgeous prewar apartment with spacious rooms and big windows and lots of period charm. She’s going to cook and put down shelf paper and go back to her pottery class, and most of all make that baby.
Nothing scary there, right?
The apartment building is the first clue that something might be a little off. The Bramford is old, and its history is a little more macabre than most. Rosemary’s not really concerned, even if her older friend Hutch, a writer of boys’ adventure stories, likes to regale her with tales of past gruesome goings on.
And then a girl Rosemary meets in the Patented Scary Basement commits suicide, jumping out of a window and splattering herself all over the sidewalk below.
Now we’re going somewhere, even if we’re not sure where that is exactly—and we’re trying really hard to ignore the giant clue right in the title.
It’s easy to do, too. Aside from the spooky laundry room and the poor dead girl, vampires aren’t lurking in the elevator, and there are no ghosts dragging chains across the floors. Rosemary and Guy meet their neighbors, and Rosemary buys furniture and hangs wallpaper, and then, of course, she gets pregnant.
And that’s when her life goes pear-shaped, literally and figuratively.
Just like the baby taking shape inside her, the horror here is all internal, hidden, masked in the everyday details of life. No one expects evil in their linen closet, or their doctor’s office, or their aging, eccentric neighbors.
That’s what makes it so much more terrifying than, say, a random werewolf attack. Everything and everyone Rosemary trusts is suspect, and even she can’t quite believe what she thinks is happening. Who would? If no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, no one ever expects their life to change with a few bites of chocolate mousse.
And that’s what’s so very horrifying. Not only has Rosemary’s ordinary life been invaded on every level, her body is the ultimate betrayal, and inside her is something kicking and squirming to be born. Or maybe unleashed is a better word.
I read this book in one huge gulp, so entirely freaked out I couldn’t look away. You can stake vampires. You can banish ghosts. You can run from the hockey-masked psycho. But you can’t escape your own body, unless you’re willing to give it up entirely. When you don’t know who to trust, or who’s turned against you, or what’s in your food or your apartment or even listening through the walls? That’s primal level horror.
And the ending? I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say I haven’t read anything as chilling in a really long time. I’ve never forgotten it, either.
That’s the mark of a great book, and a fantastic scare. And I still won’t take dessert from my neighbors…
Amy Garvey is an author and a reader, a wife and a mom, a procrastinator, a cake fanatic, a tea addict, a former editor, and one of the most obsessed fans of Supernatural out there (and there are a lot of us). Her debut novel, Cold Kiss, was released by HarperTeen in September 2011.
Visit Amy at amygarveywrites.blogspot.com.
Follow @amygarvey on Twitter.