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The sense of creeping dread that wraps around young mother-to-be Rosemary Woodhouseand the reader of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Babybegins quietly, builds subtly, and ends appropriately gruesomely. An apartment building with a history of evil, an accidental death, overly friendly neighbors, a husband who perhaps shouldn’t be trusted….Troubling as these jigsaw pieces are individually, it is only when the readers snaps them togetherin much the same way that Rosemary rearranges Scrabble tiles to crack the anagram her tormentor is hiding behindthat they take on genuinely terrifying significance.
What made Levin’s second and best novel such a success was its utter believability. Plotted beautifully and economically, its internal logic flawless, it offered little option but to accept the unspeakable: a coven of witches and the birth of Satan’s only living son. It didn’t hurt, either, that Levin kept the supernatural elements mostly on the novel’s fringes, and that the only time Satan appearedwith his “yellow furnace-eyes”was during a drug-induced nightmare.
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Imagine, then, Satanin white tie and tailsand Rosemary sharing a New Year’s Eve waltz, Satan telling the mother of his son Andrew, “Maybe I knew, or just hoped somewhere deep inside, that if you were alive when the time came for Andy to begin his work, it might turn out that we’d look into each other’s eyes again, in a nicer, more civilized situationthat there was the possibility, so to speak, of a sequel for us.”
The sequel, lamentably, has happened: Son of Rosemary, published 30 years after the original and set in the last days of 1999, finds Rosemary awakening from a 27-year coma. Her half-human/half-demonic son Andy is now one of the good guys, a 33-year-old Tommyesque spiritual leader. With his feel-good message (“Couldn’t we all lighten up just a little…”) and a top PR team, Andy has convinced everyone on the planet to take part in a global candle-lighting ceremony just as the new millennium breaks. Naturally, Andy’s true motives remain murky throughout, and even when his ex-girlfriend turns up shish-kabobed in a Tiffany’s boutique, it isn’t clear who’s pulling the strings.
As usual, Levin’s clipped prose serves him well, propelling this ridiculous mess forward zippingly, and some of his descriptions are not entirely without wit (“Imagine a conservative father whose son joined the Peace Corps, then multiply it by ten” is how Andy rates his father’s annoyance at the news that his only son has gone over to the good side), but ultimately Son of Rosemary fails in a way no previous Levin thriller has: It produces not a single frisson of fear. His horror confections besides Rosemary’s Babythe chilly, big-busted robot housewives populating The Stepford Wives, the 96 clones of Adolf Hitler in The Boys From Brazilare the ludicrous made familiar, and the familiar made uncanny. Aren’t these women just a little too keen on grocery shopping? Aren’t those little boys’ eyes just a little too blue? Compared with the derivative shocks in Levin’s firstand hopefully lastsequel, these dated constructions still unnerve and disturb.
And amuse. What sets Levin apart from his horror contemporaries like William Peter Blatty and John Saul is the playful sense of humor he uses to counterpoint the darker goings-on in his novels. The writer is clearly getting at something, for instance, when he reveals that the villain behind The Stepford Wives’ domesticated automatons is a man nicknamed Diznot because he’s scatter-brained, but because he made his fortune creating the mechanical figures that populate Disneyland’s rides. (Levin really has it in for the Magic Kingdom. In Son of Rosemary, there is an image of Mickey and Minnie Mouse wearing “I Love Andy” buttons, stupidly getting ready to take part in the candle-lighting ceremony.) And when Rosemary’s neighbors offer her and her husband a “chocolate mouse” for dessert, the effect is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek: Rosemary and her husband assume the neighbors are mispronouncing “mousse”; the reader familiar with Levin knows or at least suspects that the mousse really is a mouse, a witches’ brew staple since Macbeth.
Levin does take the occasional stab at social satire and black comedy in Son, playing on contemporary tabloid culture, our obsession with the media and beautiful people (Andy is the most charismatic person ever), but mostly these attempts come off feeling forced and lame.
Disappointing, too, is the way the author characterizes his heroinewhich is surprising, since the novel is dedicated to Mia Farrow, who played Rosemary in Roman Polanski’s film. So appealing and resourceful in the original, heredespite the occasional flash of insightshe is merely dopey, a middle-aged, second-rate, oversexed Nancy Drew. Besides letting Andy lure her into an incestuous relationship, Rosemary keeps the identity of his girlfriend’s killer from the police and even willingly participates in a quasi-Black Mass with him. The question that must be asked: Doesn’t she remember what happened last time?
Not long after Rosemary is reunited with her son while jogging in Central Park, she spies the peaked roof of the Bramford, the menacing building where most of Rosemary’s Baby was set. A little sadly, she notes that its black façade has been sandblasted peach, its gargoyles dethroned, and a cheerful American flag added. More than a little sadly, the reader makes a comparable discovery: that Ira Levin’s brightest, darkest child has gone through a similar defanging. CP