Essay by Ted Gioia

The Devil with a capital D rarely shows up in horror novels. The same is
true of his subordinate demons, those fallen angels mentioned in 2 Peter
2:4 and other Biblical passages. At first glance, this seems like an odd
omission. After all, a significant proportion of the reading public believes
in the Devil, and many even testify to their personal struggles with his
lures and wiles. Isn't he a much more plausible source of existential
terror than make-believe werewolves, vampires and zombies?  

Yet something strange occurred in
horror fiction at precisely the moment
when the Western world took on the
guise of a secular society. The same
era that gave us X-rated films, no-
fault divorce and Roe v. Wade also
Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist
climb up the bestseller lists. Church
attendance may have dropped off, and
even when the congregation packed the
pews, ministers didn't talk about Lucifer
quite as often as in the old days. But
warnings against Satan went mainstream
in movies and films.

You would think that, by 1967, the general
public would have moved beyond witch
hunting.  After all, the last Salem witch trial
had taken place in May 1693. When Ira Levin published
on March 12, 1967, war was escalating in Vietnam, the Apollo
program was making strides toward a manned lunar landing, and (on
that very same day) the Velvet Underground released its first album,
with an Andy Warhol banana on the cover. In the midst of such real
world commotion, who was looking for Satan and a witch coven….
especially in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (As one pundit later
joked: the fact that Rosemary’s struggling actor husband could afford
an apartment in their posh neighborhood should have been the "first
clue that he was in league with the Devil.")

But Levin hit the mark.
Rosemary’s Baby was the bestselling horror
novel of the decade, and spurred a huge movie hit the following year.
The horror took on a unnerving resonance when the film’s director,
Roman Polanski, started his own downward spiral a few months after the
release of the movie. Polanski's wife Sharon Tate,
an actress best known for horror films who had
played an uncredited role in
Rosemary’s Baby, was
murdered in one of the most gruesome and highly
publicized criminal cases of the 20th century. And
subsequently, on the day before the tenth anniversary
of the publication of
Rosemary’s Baby, was arrested
on sexual assault charges—initiating lifelong battle
with legal authorities. Okay, the story that
Rosemary’s Baby was a cursed movie may be going
too far, but I will note, for what it's worth,  that  Mia
Farrow, star of the film, dealt with scandal and
controversy in matters relating to her own 'babies'
and that the Dakota, which served as the film location
for the protagonist’s apartment in the film, was the site
of John Lennon’s murder in 1980—indeed, on the same
spot where a woman jumps to her death in the movie.
Also, Krzysztof Komeda, the innovative composer who
contributed the score to the film and was a close friend
to Polanski, died from injuries sustained in a fall
several months before Tate's murder. He was only 38
years-old at the time, and the circumstances surrounding
his untimely demise are almost as murky and clouded with controversy
as the death-by-falling in Levin's novel.

Even before these incidents, the story of
Rosemary's Baby exuded a
dark aura. That was part of the allure that turned the book into a best-
seller in 1967. But before the history of this tale was complete, it came
to encompass a whole host of additional macabre elements—so much
so that any full account involves many of the most tragic, controversial
or demented characters of the second half of the 20th century:
Charles Manson, John Lennon, Sharon Tate, Mark David Chapman,
Roman Polanski, Mia Farrow, Woody Allen and others.

Given this complex and disturbing lineage, readers approaching Ira
Levin’s novel for the first time may be surprised by the subtlety and
slow pacing of
Rosemary’s Baby. Almost every terrifying detail in this
book is presented indirectly. The reader—much like Rosemary herself
—is forced to guess at what evil deeds are happening behind the scenes.
Almost everything in open view seems innocent, almost banal.
Rosemary Woodhouse and her husband Guy have moved into a
new apartment in an exclusive residence. She has been warned that
the Bramford, despite its old-fashioned elegance, has a troubled history.
Previous residents have been implicated in dark crimes, and the
building has been the site of a disproportionate number of violent
deaths. But these must be mere coincidences, no?

This kind of bland set-up is Levin's specialty. He is the master of
horror with a blasé face.  He created the recipe in
Rosemary’s Baby,
and followed it again with comparable success five years later in
Stepford Wives
(1972).  In the universe of Ira Levin, evil does not arrive
in a flak jacket with guns blazing. It is mundane and undetectable to
the casual observer. It lives behind a façade of bourgeois normalcy.  
The terror, when it appears, comes in the form of a gradual realization.
This slow build-up creates an inexorable tension that the conventional
fright fests—with ghosts and ghouls leaping out of dark corners—cannot
match. This is the horror of everyday life, and as such inescapable. You
can't lock it out, because it has already taken up residence inside your

Rosemary is drawn into the life of her meddling next-door neighbors,
Minnie and Roman Castevet. They are nosy and intrusive, but these
crotchety senior citizens hardly seem dangerous. And they are so
sympathetic when they learn that Rosemary wants to start a family. They
even have influence with an esteemed obstetrician, and will secure his
services at a sharp discount to his usual rates.

Perhaps she should have seen the warning signs. But they were so easy
to miss: a inexplicable suicide of a young woman residing with her
neighbors; strange sounds from the adjacent apartment; a bizarre,
feverish dream on the night her baby was conceived; peculiar
instructions from her new doctor. A family friend tries to warn her,
but he has a sudden medical emergency that leaves him in a coma.
Rosemary eventually puts the pieces together, but even after she finally
realizes her vulnerability, she doesn't know where to turn. Even her
husband seems part of the widening conspiracy. And what outsider
would believe her story of witches and devil worship in modern day

Rosemary’s Baby is not a flashy book. You won’t find incisive
metaphors or poetic descriptions of people and settings. The prose
proceeds with the language of quotidian life. But that simply reinforces
the banality of Ira Levin’s conception of evil. The plotting and pacing,
however, are handled expertly, and the momentum accelerates in the
books final pages. Even if readers have grasped the dangers faced by our
protagonist—perhaps long before Rosemary herself is aware of their
scope—Levin still has surprises in store. After all, Rosemary Woodhouse
is not just a victim, she is also a mother. If the birth of an infant serves
as a fitting conclusion to one type of story; it also suggests the beginning
of many other tales, perhaps charmingly domestic or chillingly demonic,
as the circumstances warrant. As you might guess, given Mr. Levin’s
predilections, our surprise ending combines both these extremes, and is
all the more disturbing for the ease with which opposites coexist.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to
Listen to Jazz
from Basic Books.

Publication Date: April 18, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin
To purchase, click on image
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
The Devil and Rosemary's Baby

At the peak of the secular 1960s, Ira Levin turned
a story about Lucifer into the bestselling horror
novel of the decade
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
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The Misread City
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