Does Ira Levin get enough credit? Not just as a horror/thriller writer, but as a great writer overall? Think about it, when was the last time someone said, “Oh, I really love, or like, Ira Levin and his work,” in reference to being asked their favorite authors or novels? When was the last time he was brought up in a book discussion? How many have heard of him? I want to rectify the slight a little by shining a light on a forgotten master.
Is he forgotten, though? Maybe just a little overlooked– he could never really be completely forgotten. The works still live on, but how many (younger viewers) recognize that the movies Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives are based on Levin’s novels? How many remember Deathtrap? It was Broadway’s longest-running comedy-thriller.
Rosemary’s Baby is probably the best known of his works today. The Stepford Wives was equally huge at one time: It lent to the national lexicon a slang term for an obedient, perfect suburban housewife, a derogatory remark which has since faded from use. I haven’t heard it in many moons and the last time I did hear it, the person (a lady) who used the slur didn’t know its origin.
Rosemary’s Baby is the story of a young married couple who move into a new apartment. The entire building, the Bramford, seems to be filled with retirees. Rosemary’s actor husband, Guy, falls right in with the neighbors, spending a lot of time with Minnie and Roman Castevet. They are a little odd, but seem to be good people. Since this novel came out in 1967, and it’s film adaptation the following year, I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say the Castevets, and the other tenants, are not good people. There’s a whole network of evil going on in Ira Levin’s New York City.
Levin’s 1972 novel, The Stepford Wives, has a family fleeing the Big Apple for the tranquil peace of Connecticut. Joanna, her kids and her husband like the small town life of Stepford, but it moves at a different pace, and by it’s own rules, and it definitely takes some getting used to. Joanna’s husband joins the local men’s club to network and as a demonstration of goodwill. Like in the best disturbing stories (and darkly comic ones), Stepford isn’t all it presents itself to be. The most vociferous, and outgoing, wives turn up in the PTO meetings as June Cleaver carbon copies. One by one, new arrivals move into town, and one by one their wives change into something chillingly perfect and creepily “other”. And Joanna just may be next.
1976 brought another bestseller, The Boys From Brazil, which was a twisted little tale of Nazi clones made by none other than Josef Mengele himself. Sliver was published in 1991 (some of you may remember the ’93 Sharon Stone-starring film version) and Levin’s last novel hit shelves in 1997, Son of Rosemary. More plays and movies followed until Levin’s death in 2007.
I remember reading a review in Entertainment Weekly of Sliver, the book, upon it’s release. It said something to the effect that Ira Levin wrote horror and thrillers for the clarinet loving crowd. That’s a roundabout way of saying his work was sophisticated, which it was.
I think it’s only proper to close with a quote from EW’s review of the Sliver paperback: “He [Levin] has been imitated by other hacks, but he never repeats himself. He has also avoided the temptation of those hacks who decide they’ll show their true colors by trying to produce the Great American Novel. Ira Levin never gets serious, he just gets better.”