Oh Mother Where Art Thou?

Two books I’ve read in the last few months share themes that make them worthy of a post (more than worthy!) They’re both excellent, tightly written, suspenseful horror fiction, and both explore a mother realizing her child is the embodiment of evil. These two masterpieces of Mommy Macabre (mahvelous!) are Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin and The Bad Seed by William March. If you haven’t read them, and don’t like it when someone gives away the plot, read no further, but for the rest, let us proceed.

The central question both books explore is: what is the limit of love for your flesh and blood, when you know your offspring is irredeemably evil? The two books have different answers to that question, based on each mother’s choice, but neither books ends in a way to make the reader comfortable. Oh, no, you’re unsettled at the end of both these classics, like a one-legged man on a pogo stick.

Rosemary is impregnated with Satan’s spawn early in the book, and the suspense builds as she finds out this tragic truth. Her husband, an actor, is tempted by the coven of satanists occupying their apartment building to join them in exchange for a boost to his flagging career. As Rosemary’s baby grows within her, and her suspicions turn to real fear, the reader is jerked about liked a fish on a hook. Levin reels you in, making you think she’s finally onto the game. And then, he flops you into the boat when Rosemary finds out the truth, and you lay there, gasping and frantic, just like the heroine. The coven is always two steps ahead. By the time Rosemary is forced to give birth, you’re as exhausted as she is, and mired in her defeat. But he doesn’t leave you there, as we shall see. No. He’s still got to gut you.

But before we detail Rosemary’s final decision, lets compare set-ups. In the Bad Seed, Christine, the mother, shares many of the same character elements as Rosemary. They are both attractive, innocent, somewhat gullible women who are basically good. After the death of a little boy at a picnic, Christine begins to suspect her daughter, Rhoda, of having some involvement. The boy won a medal for penmanship that Rhoda felt should have been hers, and following his drowning, Christine finds the medal among her daughter’s things. This leads her to dig deeper, and begin to suspect that various deaths (including an unfortunate tumble out of a window of a little dog Rhoda began to tire of) are the handiwork of her own child. In contrast to Rosemary, Christine finds out that she is the genetic carrier of her daughter’s homicidal tendencies. Christine learns she is adopted and her birth mother was an accomplished killer who murdered most of her family a generation before. The “seed” has simply skipped a generation. Rhoda is a remorseless killer, and is characterized by author March as a throwback to a human animal that felt no qualms in eliminating anyone obstructing her aims, no matter how mundane.

Rosemary has the demon spawn foisted upon her; Christine is the carrying agent for her own.

What do these two harried women do in the end? Christine attempts a murder-suicide, to eliminate herself and Rhoda, but is only successful in taking her own life. Rosemary makes a final futile attempt to kill her antichrist child, only to find herself drawn to the baby despite her murderous intentions. With only slight cajoling from the gathered coven members, she agrees to be the child’s mother.

Both endings leave the reader unsettled. The Bad Seed features a mother committing the ultimate crime, attempting  to kill her child. Though she fails, we know Christine is doing it for the betterment of society; the world would be a vastly better place without Rhoda in it. Rosemary, on the other hand, succumbs to her maternal instinct and takes Satan’s spawn to her breast, which will lead to humanity’s doom. Christine’s is the more noble choice. She is thinking of others. Rosemary’s is selfish, but understandable, decision and that is why it is terrifying.

In the author’s forward included in the release of Rosemary’s Baby I read, which came out following the film’s extreme popularity, Ira Levin mocks the fact that so many people have taken his book seriously – he is absolutely flabbergasted that anyone could believe a coven of satanists could actually be plotting to take over the world. But he tapped into something real about the feminine ideal of compassion in this book, and it struck a chord, and plays into the reality he creates. Compassion can be a weakness, even when it has the best intentions. In the Bad Seed, Christine did her best to rid the world of the horror she had wreaked upon it. She fought against her feminine instinct for compassion and nearly won. In Levin’s book, the satanists play upon compassion and tempt Rosemary away from her more noble aim of killing the child.

Both children survive (and are terrorizing their fictional worlds to this day!), but Christine’s strength of will is a tribute to William March’s vision for this character. Christine’s pyrrhic victory throws Rosemary’s damning submission into greater relief.

Read both books – the apex of Mommy Macabre.

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