Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

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Roman Polanski’s film of the same title is one of my all-time favorite fear-of-the-unknown movies, I’ve seen it several times. While I was reading the novel, I automatically pictured the images of the film in my mind, and for a while I was struggling to decide how good the book is on its own. After a while, though, I concluded that it’s good.

As for the story: young and bohemian Rosemary and her husband, Guy, an up-and-coming actor suddenly get a chance to move into the most prestigious, most elegant apartment building of New York City. This is such a famous and posh apartment building that it’s enough to tell the cab driver: „To the Bramford, please” – and the driver will immediately know what you’re talking about. So yes, living at such an address is surely a much more trendy thing to do than to tell the driver to take you to a nameless street in the suburbs and then guide him carefully among hundreds of identical houses.

Anyway, I’m digressing.

Rosemary and Guy, of course, gladly take the chance to move to this famous address, even though an old friend tries to warn them, saying that the house doesn’t exactly have the best reputation, and many dark deeds had been committed there. And as it usually goes with evil houses, the troubles start shortly after the couple settle in. The tenants of Bramford slowly start to mentally devour the young couple, and when Rosemary gets pregnant, things really start to spiral out of control.

Rosemary’s Baby is a delightfully multi-layered novel. First, it works as a horror/haunted house story – as an urban haunted house story, where hell isn’t the house itself, but the people who live there. (As for me, I can hardly think of anything more terrifying than an old house, with old-fashioned and dangerous-looking elevators and with a bunch of curious and gently overbearing pensioners for neighbors, who keep insisting on inviting you to dinner, and who knock on your door six times a day just to bring you a little dessert and to kindly ask whether you need anything from the shop.)

And Rosemary also starts to find this state of affairs oppressive, she gets suspicious about the oh-so-kind interest and care the neighbors show in her well-being – but the chances for getting away get slimmer and slimmer, and the world out there slowly recedes to a distance that’s completely out of reach.

It’s truly a horror, make no mistake – and we might even just ignore the accidental little detail that the enchanting tenants of Bramford are supposedly serving Satan. (I think this whole occult-mystical-satanist story-line can be interpreted as symbolic, and all the evil practices of the neighbors can be interpreted as some good, old-fashioned manipulative psychological games.)

And the other layer of the novel is just as terrifying: the story of a marriage crisis. Even though Rosemary and Guy look like the perfect couple, their relationship is tainted with suspicion, distrust and quiet frustration from the very beginning. Rosemary’s and Guy’s marriage games are centered around the topic of having children, and there’s everything here you can imagine to make your blood run cold: a wife who wants to have a baby so badly that she’s half-planning to accidentally get pregnant; a suspicious husband who would prefer to postpone the business of family-making for a few more years to concentrate on his career, so he follows his wife’s periods with the utmost vigilance to avoid any nasty surprises, yet, in a weak or remorseful moment says, OK, let’s make a baby; there’s sex with a sleeping/drugged wife; and then there’s a terrible coldness and growing distance between Rosemary and Guy during the pregnancy, coupled with anger, pain, and silent accusations. Like I say – it could hardly get more dreadful than this.

There’s no need, after all, for any kind of satanist practices here – if I read this novel only as a possible story of a marriage and pregnancy, it’s already more than enough to freak me out.

And what makes the novel especially good is that it’s not easy (or downright impossible) to decide what really happens, and who is in their right mind and who isn’t. Does Rosemary just go a little crazy during her pregnancy? Is it all in her mind? Is it just paranoia? Or is the house and/or its tenants truly evil? Everything is obscure, deliciously ambiguous here. In the end – it’s a dark delight to read this novel, but delight it is.

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And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

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I used to have a period long ago when I read lots of books by Agatha Christie. I wasn’t methodical, I didn’t have a plan, and altogether I read perhaps a third of her books. And this novel is one I keep returning to. I’ve read it three or four times already, and even though I know all the twists by heart, it’s enough for me to read the little poem on the first page, which serves as an inspiration for the murderer when he plans his murders, and I immediately have the shivers running down my spine. (I’m not intending to name the murderer, but his identity might be guessed from the following paragraphs.)

As for the story – at the beginning of the novel, ten guests arrive on a small island that’s just off the coast of England but inaccessible in bad weather. One guest dies on the first evening, and by the next morning, the housekeeper’s wife is also dead. No wonder then that a panicky mood soon sets in among the remaining guests as the suspicion arises that there’s probably a killer hiding somewhere on the island. They soon establish that there’s nobody else on the island except for the guests, so the only important question remains: who among the eight is the murderer, and how can he be stopped before he goes on to kill everyone?

Reading And Then There Were None for the first time was a stunning, deeply unsettling and uncomfortable experience for me, and this hasn’t changed much during the subsequent re-readings. This novel is so ominous and so claustrophobic that it doesn’t matter that I learn the truth in the end (or that I already know the truth because I remember it from my previous readings), because by that time I’m already well under its effect. Finishing this novel is not like finishing any other mystery story: here I don’t feel the comfort and satisfaction I usually feel, and I cannot sit back and say: well, this was an interesting murder mystery, brilliantly solved by a smart detective while I had some good fun. Instead, I feel as if I finished a deep psychological drama of several hundred pages, something that would occupy my mind for several days to come, something I’d never be able to completely forget.

In this novel Christie managed to do something that is quite unusual in a murder mystery and something that sets this novel apart from her own works, too. This is the only murder mystery (not only by Christie but in general) I’ve read more than once in my life, so it’s definitely more than a moderately engaging story that’s good for a rainy Saturday afternoon.

What makes it special, then? First, that it deals with the question of sin much more deeply, analytically and philosophically than most crime stories. The specific murders don’t even matter that much here – what matters is the philosophy of the murderer, the philosophy that makes him want to kill and see to it that the truth prevails. This philosophy here often reminds me of Crime and Punishment without the long psychological analyses – and in fact, these analyses aren’t even missing here, they are hidden, in embryonic form, in the epilogue.

Another thing that makes this novel special to me is its atmosphere. I’m too lazy to look for specific examples, but the way Christie depicts the mounting tension, the unbearable claustrophobia, and the feelings of rising doubt, terror, and animosity is deeply terrifying.

And one more thing which I didn’t notice at first, but which became obvious through subsequent re-readings: this is a deeply ironic novel. It makes for some good (and comparatively light) fun in this dark novel to note how often and in how many different ways the murderer claims that the culprit can only be a dangerous maniac, while no-one has a clue that he’s talking about himself. I’m grateful for this irony here – even with that, this novel is terrifying, and I wouldn’t even like to imagine how it would be without it.