Ira Levin’s masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby, was published in 1967 and has aged remarkably well. The references within the story are all very specifically located in time (the fall of 1965 until the summer of 1966), but that, perhaps counterintuitively, helps make the thing work so well today. The minutiae of daily life that Levin presents are all clearly 1960s things(or are wearing 1960s fashions), but they still feel real and true, not like things that were added as stage setting to make the time period feel authentic. The very ordinariness of the world he creates comforts and distracts the reader, allowing the frights to nudge their way inside quietly and almost unobserved where they can do the most damage.
I recently taught Stephen King’s novel The Shining, and the class spent quite a bit of time talking about how little happens that should really terrify the readers but they were still terrified. As I pointed out, nothing overtly supernatural or horrific happens until around page 241 (of 447 pages). Levin’s book has the same effect (and it is probably something that King learned from Levin), with a lot of largely normal conversations between husbands and wives and friends and neighbors, cocktails, dinners, work, house decorating, and other domestic duties filling the pages. Nothing happens. And nothing is scary.
Perhaps the tension derives partly from the expectations of the readers: we know this is a scary book, so we keep looking for the monster in the background to make its way to the foreground. When it doesn’t, we get even more tense and worried, knowing that the big reveal will be terrifying. There is more to it than that, though. Saying, “This is a scary book,” and then giving us a lot of nothing is a cheap trick, and Levin is not playing cheap tricks on his readers. Instead, he manages to invest each small, insignificant conversation, each throw-away gesture with that slightest whiff of the uncanny. The uncanny, as Freud pointed out so astutely, gains most of its power from the way homelike things (the German term Freud uses is “unheimlich,” which means “not homely”–more on this in future posts) are rendered strange or unhomelike. So, when Rosemary and her glib, shallow husband, Guy, have a conversation about whether or not to invite their nosy neighbors over for a party, there are tiny, almost imperceptible signs of stress. We as readers become engineers of the human soul, looking at the tiny fractures revealed not with some high tech scanning device but through little human (or inhuman) touches.
The big fright at the end of the novel is the charming line, “He has his father’s eyes!” The woman who notes this says it with such motherly warmth that we first fall for the cliché and think, “Well, isn’t that nice,” until the real meaning hits. The cliché and the real meaning of the phrase occur nearly simultaneously, and this conflict–the comfort of friendly domestic inanities colliding with the horror of satanic rape–echoes and intensifies the unheimlich horror we have felt throughout the novel.
I mentioned King earlier, and his novel shares some important features with Levin’s. In both, the authors create scenes of “ordinary” domestic terror. In one, the worries and insecurities of a young married couple who may not exactly agree on the relative importance of career and family gradually darkens into a horrific allegory: the quasi-desired baby is, in fact, the spawn of the devil. In the other, the young family faces the prospect of complete economic ruin brought on by the father’s alcoholism. The Torrance family’s fears are made tangible in the Overlook hotel: it both welcomes them into its warm, homely embrace, but also threatens to smother them.
In many ways, real horror does not come from ghosts, zombies, vampires, or any other frightening freak our imaginations can conjure up. If anything, these creatures might be a welcome relief from the uncertainties and insecurities that truly frighten us (should I leave my husband? is my child really ill?) because they are, paradoxically, something real that can be met with whatever talismans or apotropaic charms ward off their particular evil. Not knowing is terrifying. Nothing is scary.