Rosemary’s Baby Revisited (The Rosemary Effect) by Sidney Williams

Classics of the horror genre, while offering wonderfully chilling reading experiences, also provide lessons for writers of all genres.

I became interested in Rosemary’s Baby perhaps because Ira Levin’s work illustrates for novelists how to deliver detail while keeping a story moving. Be warned if you’re somehow unaware of the twist ending, spoilers lie ahead.

It’s interesting to imagine how Rosemary’s premise might be executed as a short story. It focuses on a single character and features a surprise ending achieved with misdirection. The core story could be delivered in a few thousand words.

Instead, Levin unfolds the story in 85,000-words or so, covering approximately a year in the lives of Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse while building Guy’s duplicity, Rosemary’s anxiety, and the reader’s suspense to the twist.

Through most of the novel, Rosemary is pregnant and believes a group of New York cultists want to sacrifice her child. In the end, she discovers that she has unwittingly carried Satan’s child, delivering the cult’s messiah.

Levin uses the novel’s length to focus on Rosemary’s rising paranoia and contrast the events of a specific year, 1965, the year of “God is Dead” headlines in an America on the cusp of upheaval. He never pads the tale.

Transitions that seem sometimes like brief movie collages in print are used to traverse the less important days in Rosemary’s life, covering periods between the plot’s most significant moments quickly and efficiently, never injecting a fully-developed scene where a sentence will suffice as in this instance:

“Guy kept his keyed-up vivacity all through Sunday, building shelves and shoe racks in the bedroom closets and inviting a bunch of Luther people over for Moo Goo Gai Woodhouse; and on Monday he painted the shelves and shoe racks and stained a bench Rosemary had found in a thrift shop, cancelling his session with Dominick and keeping his ear stretched for the phone, which he caught every time before the first ring was finished. At three in the afternoon it rang again, and Rosemary, trying out a different arrangement of the living room chairs, heard him say, “Oh God, no. Oh, the poor guy.” (Levin, 96)

That is a busy paragraph. Guy Woodhouse is physically busy in it, and Levin uses 105 words to reveal much. He shows Guy’s energized state, furthers the establishment of the Woodhouse’s new apartment in the “Black Bramford” brownstone and hints at the just-struck deal with the neighboring cultists. Guy’s able to build shelves and entertain actor friends in the same day, and the next he foregoes a session with his vocal coach, whom he’ll eventually abandon altogether while anticipating his reward for allowing Rosemary to serve as the conduit for evil.

Levin has no need for a dialog scene, no depiction of the gathering of the play Luther’s cast members so that Guy can express anticipation that maybe things are about to change for him, no exchange with Rosemary about the phone calls.  The author simply summarizes and keeps things moving.

The same technique is utilized on several occasions. Rosemary’s Vidal Sasson haircut, dental visit, New York mayoral election day and Guy’s work in a television pilot are summed up in a few sentences. The same thing occurs in a passage where  Rosemary’s acceptance of constant abdominal pain, estrangement from old friends and growing bonds with Bramford residents is covered.

It is exposition concisely handled, conveying layers of information in seemingly simple fashion while never seeming rushed. Levin manages to depict day-to-day life, dispenses with the mundane quickly and delivers an effective novel that doesn’t require chase scenes or violence to chill, and it never lags with unneeded detail.

It’s definitely worth contemplating The Rosemary Effect and considering ways to trim or tighten items that drag a work in progress down.

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