Source of book: Borrowed from the library.
This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. Every October, we pick a spooky book, and dress up for the occasion. (My wife made me a scrabble board shirt…)
This is one of those classic horror books that I hadn’t read. Actually, I haven’t read any Ira Levin - his other major work was The Stepford Wives, which has certainly become part of our cultural background.
The basic plot is fairly simple. Young couple moves to new apartment in an old building with a history of tragic events. They become friends with an eccentric older couple on the same floor. The wife becomes pregnant under odd circumstances, has a painful and difficult pregnancy, and ends up giving birth to the Devil’s spawn.
For me, the most interesting part of the book was the way that, until the very end, there are multiple explanations for the events that do not involve the supernatural, and these explanations are actually more plausible.
It is apparent, for example, that Rosemary’s husband, Guy, is a self-centered jerk. As the book goes on, his behavior definitely veers into abuse and control. I am not sure how this would have played in 1967, but it seems pretty creepy now.
Added to that is the fact that Rosemary seems to be going somewhat crazy throughout the pregnancy. In fact, if it weren’t for Guy’s suspicious actions, it would be hard to come to any other conclusion. Well, that and the fact that nobody takes her pain seriously. My wife the nurse, however, pointed out that even now, women’s pain is all too often dismissed with a pat on the head as what they used to call “hysteria” - insanity from the uterus. (A friend suggested we need to use “testerical” for guys acting nutty. I like it.)
The book itself had some odd quirks. For example, an inordinate amount of time was spent on things like the layout of the rooms, the process of selecting furniture, and a certain closet. I assumed that these would, in some way, play a part in the story. Except they didn’t. There was never really any explanation in the second half of the book.
Another weird thing was the character of Terry, who briefly appears, then is killed off. One assumes that she was the original choice for the Devil Baby, but either kills herself or is killed. Again, practically no explanation later in the book, which seemed odd. Maybe I am just used to authors who don’t mention details that aren’t important to the story. Kind of like Chekhov and his guns - you know if one appears, it will be fired.
One final detail led me to a bit of a rabbit trail, which I figure I will inflict on you as well. “Tannis Root” plays a big role in the plot. It is the stinky core of a charm which is initially worn by Terry, then by Rosemary. As I suspected, it doesn’t actually exist in reality, but does have a symbolic meaning. The association of the city of Tanis, Egypt, which does exist, has long been associated with the Devil and demons in general. This association dates back a long time, to the 2nd Century CE and the works of Justin Martyr. In developing a fairly detailed system of demonology, Martyr cites both the iconic story of the Fall of Lucifer in Isaiah (which is a fairly obvious appropriation and reuse of the root story that also became the Greco-Roman myth of Phaethon) and other passages in Isaiah which purport to tell of evil rulers in Tanis. Thus, Martyr builds the idea that the fallen angels congregate in Tanis. This whole edifice depends on a mistranslation of the Hebrew text in the Septuagint. You can read a rather long explanation here if you like. But essentially, you have a story of earthly rulers taking on divine titles (hubris, yes?) and suffer a catastrophic fall (nemesis), which is then made into proof of the idea of rebellious angels, then a mistranslation placing them in Tanis, and then the use of Tanis as a shorthand for demonic activity. From there, you can look at a long history of the Tanis/Satan connection in literature and theological writing. The final connection here is the “tanna” plant, another fictional plant used in early mummy movies. It isn’t clear if this was expressly a reference to Tanis or not, but the similarity certainly could (and did) lead to a conflation of the Tanis/Devil connection and the Tanna/Devils Weed idea. So there you have it.
This was a fairly light read, which is kind of the idea for Spooky Lush - something even the less serious book nuts in our club can enjoy, and one which gives a good theme for food and costumes. Given that the book - and even more so the movie - are part of our culture, it is a good thing that I read it. I should probably do the same for The Stepford Wives one of these days.
For those who care to follow along, here are the books that I have read for our club. Camping and music schedules have made me miss a number of months, although my wife has attended more - she started first as well, before talking me into going. It’s been a blast.
One of the best things about the club is reading books that probably would never have come to my attention otherwise.
By popular demand: the Scrabble Board costume.
By popular demand: the Scrabble Board costume.
Where’s the picture of the scrabble board shirt?ReplyDelete
I really should take one. We just got busy that day, and my usual picture taking didn't happen.Delete
That shirt is fantastic! She got the star in the center and numbered the letters. She even added a letter tray. Very creative.Delete
Thanks for linking to my "rather long explanation"!ReplyDelete
No problem. I personally found it fascinating. However, some of my readers complain that my posts run long, so I figured I would give fair warning. :)Delete
Didn’t he also write The Boys From Brazil?ReplyDelete