The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 1: A Review of ROSEMARY’S BABY by Ira Levin

“Yet who shall declare the dark theme a positive handicap?  Radiant with beauty, the Cup of the Ptolemies was carven of onyx.”  Those are the last lines of H. P. Lovecraft’s SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE, in my opinion one of the finest critical works ever written about the horror genre.  I love horror.  Maybe a better way to put it would be I absolutely adore it, with an almost silly, babbling affection.  It is my favorite genre and this is the first in an ongoing series of horror reviews.  Lovecraft is one of my favorite authors and, while I don’t always agree with his critical judgements, I wanted to honor him by using his words as the title for this series. 

When I first read this book, I had a lot of fun with it but I didn’t take it very seriously.  I STILL don’t think it’s really supposed to be taken seriously but, crucially, I no longer believe, as I once did, that this lack of seriousness keeps it from being a masterpiece.  A little while after reading Rosemary’s Baby I read William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.  “Ah,” I thought at the time, “here is a really serious horror novel!”  To my mind, Blatty’s book actually seemed concerned with something beyond genre trappings.  While it certainly delivered thrills, it also tried to be about deeper themes and motivations whereas Levin’s novel was just gleeful fun.  However, even as I said this to myself, I had a nagging feeling at the back of my mind.  That nag grew naggier when I finished Blatty’s novel.  What was nagging me was that I just didn’t enjoy The Exorcist at all while I had loved Rosemary’s Baby.  For a while, I tried to convince myself I was just being foolish.  Eventually however, I gave up.  I don’t even own a copy of The Exorcist anymore while Rosemary’s Baby is one of the books that doesn’t leave my shelf.

In a 2010 introduction to a new edition of this novel, the great mystery editor Otto Penzler mentioned something that helped me realize why I had had this series of reactions.  Levin, according to Penzler, was a secular Jew.  The Christian worldview of Rosemary’s Baby is not one the author believed in.  In fact, he didn’t believe in any religious worldview.  Penzler even claimed that Levin hoped his novel might help dispel some of the suspicions about Satan and witchcraft that are the underpinnings of his story.  What with the Satanism genre reinvigorated by Levin’s book and numerous people convinced things someone told them about from a movie are true, I’d say it didn’t quite work out that way.  Still, Levin’s disbelief is what makes his novel so wonderful.  While Rosemary’s Baby completely delivers jump scares, eerie atmosphere, diabolical villains, and a multi-shock ending, none of these would work nearly so well were it not for the fact that Levin thought they were utterly absurd.  Unlike Blatty, Levin never ruminates about faith and compassion.  No, he just leaps cheerfully into the world of ridiculous goings on and bids us join him, screeching at the creepy moments but never losing the snarky smile on our faces.  This is one of the few things mostly missing from the otherwise top-notch film adaptation.  It would be hard to get Levin’s authorial smirking into a dramatization so I don’t hold it against the filmmakers.  Actually, it’s hard to put my finger on it even in the book.  I only know I felt it right from the start, even if I was only later able to describe it accurately.

All this makes me wonder about the very purpose of the horror genre.  To frighten audiences would be the standard justification.  After thinking about Rosemary’s Baby, I wonder if it is something a little more significant, at least in the best cases.  Even the most gut-churning horror tends to expect the audience to know none of it is real.  Perhaps the true purpose of the very best horror, and I would include Rosemary’s Baby, is to make us think, just a little bit, about what we’ve been taught to be afraid of.  When we do, perhaps we’ll understand it better.  And then, just maybe, we might actually start laughing.

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