Countdown to New Year’s Eve: Rosemary’s Baby

With 10 days to go until the release of New Year’s Eve, I decided to post every day about an influence on the novel.

This is the big one. 

Sometimes, a novel can serve as more than just an influence on a project. A novel can go further; it can become a handbook, a bible or even a blueprint. In such cases, the Blueprint Novel- for lack of a better term- accompanies me through the whole process, sitting beside the keyboard like a pet. This is not to say I copy or plagiarise it. Rather, it serves as a goal, an inspiration; a bible where I can seek guidance amidst the hell of the first drafts. 

I’m not alone in this. Peter James, in writing Dead Like You (set in his hometown of Brighton) announced that he was inspired by Graham Greene, and aimed to make his book ‘10% as good as Brighton Rock.’ China Mieville used the books of Raymond Chandler as an tonal template for his sci-fi noir The City and the City. But sometimes the Blueprint Book is not the one you’d expect. For example, Norman Mailer reputedly used to read Anna Karenina every morning before writing The Naked and The Dead. It was not that the subject matter was the same: he just wanted to capture the novel’s intoxicating mixture of grandeur and intimacy.

There’s only one candidate for the Blueprint book for New Year’s Eve: Ira Levin’s horror masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby. 

Rosemary's Baby: Introduction by Chuck Palanhiuk: Ira Levin:  9781849015882: Books

There are the obvious parallels: Rosemary’s Baby, just as New Year’s Eve, is a mystery-horror which takes place in an apartment block. Just like Rosemary,  my main character Hayley is at first excited to live in a prestigious area, but comes to suspect that all the neighbours are colluding in something sinister. 

But I drew far more from the book than superficial plot similarities. What inspired me more about this book was the expert use of tone. There’s something frighteningly effective in Levin’s matter-of-fact prose; he manages to create great unease just by depicting the weird and the eerie as if it were something mundane. It makes you question yourself; it makes you wonder whether anything strange happened at all. While this is commonplace in film, where a performance or soundtrack can undercut ordinary situations and give them a sinister edge, this is extremely difficult to do in prose.  Aickman, for example, does this beautifully.

But Ira Levin is the master of it.

It’s the reason why I find it so unfortunate that the novel of Rosemary’s Baby now lives in the shadow of Roman Polanski’s film. The adaptation is overblown and operatic– perhaps due to the influence of William Castle, who built a reputation by putting electric shocks in cinema seats and swinging skeletons over the seats of his audiences. 

As effective as the film is… it does not deserve to eclipse the work of Ira Levin. It is because of the film that people erroneously assume that the source material is pitched at the same operatic level. But the book instead rackets up the tension through the accumulation of detail, of descriptions of behaviour that feels just left-of-centre. For long stretches of this book, you can’t put your finger on what exactly feels wrong; but you find yourself shifting in your seat nonetheless.

I wanted to use some of Levin’s tricks to make Hayley’s apartment a place of increasing claustrophobia and mystery. To start by making it a place of prestige and comfort–and then expose the violence underneath the floorboards.

I’m not as confident as Peter James. I knew that I couldn’t write a book 10% as good as Rosemary’s Baby.

But that didn’t stop me trying.

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