The Summer That Melted Rosemary’s Baby
Two novel recommendations for horror fans who appreciate well-told stories about devilish characters.
What respectable horror fan doesn’t love a good novel in which the devil, or something closely resembling him, comes to Earth to stage an uprising, possess an unsuspecting soul, or otherwise wreak havoc on the mortal world? I sure do; in fact, I used the trope as a central part of my 2020 novel, Burn, Beautiful Soul, in which a demon king named Basil departs his subterranean kingdom for the surface to take a job writing ad copy for an agency in rural Nebraska.
Two excellent novels that incorporate this idea ended up on my nightstand in the past year: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967); and The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel (2017). In some ways, these two novels are opposites; one is written in first person, the other in third person; one is a coming-of-age story set in a small Ohio town that does not exist, and the other is an occult-driven mystery set in the world’s largest metropolis; and one surrounds the end of innocence, while the other details the postpartum beginning of hell on earth.
Both, however, are amazingly written, completely engrossing, and creepy as hell.
Let’s start with Rosemary’s Baby. I picked up a hardback copy of this novel for less than a dollar at a used-book sale in a suburb of Philadelphia, figuring that even if it landed in the “DNF” pile, at least I had it in my collection; it’s considered a classic for good reason. I had not watched the film in its entirety until last year, though I had seen the final unsettling scene a dozen times in Terror in the Aisles and other films about horror’s best and most iconic titles.
You likely know the story, too, even if you have not read the novel or seen the film. The gist: A young married couple moves into a gorgeous Manhattan apartment building with an insidious past; a klatch of elderly and eccentric neighbors gets increasingly chummy with the couple, because they are grooming the protagonist, Rosemary, to bear the Dark Lord’s progeny; and, in the end, Rosemary’s maternal instincts kick in as she comes to terms with the idea of spending the next 18 years mothering the antichrist, at which point the antichrist will be of legal age and able to make decisions for himself.
Rosemary’s Baby is an excellent read. Even though I knew the story, I felt a sense of eerie delight as I turned the patchouli-scented pages. (Incidentally, I love the personalities of used books; many come with notes in the margins, underlined passages the prior owner found particularly profound, or, in this case, evidence of the prior owner’s lifestyle.) Without giving away too much of the story, Rosemary finds herself on the horns of a thorny dilemma. She and her husband, Guy, want to have a baby. Her new neighbors seem kind enough, even if they are a bit strange and take a little too quickly to the new folks in town, particularly Guy, who is an aspiring actor. When the neighbors learn that the couple is trying to procreate, things happen, as they generally do in novels.
Rosemary’s pregnancy takes, which should be a cause for celebration. Her memory of certain events surrounding the pregnancy seems fuzzy, which may or may not have something to do with the “cold sour” concoctions one of the neighbors has been feeding her to sustain the bundle of joy growing inside her. Or it could be the stink of the strange charm around her neck, another gift from the overbearing neighbor. Of course, Rosemary also abhors the atrocious dreams—or are they memories?—about a seemingly demonic figure having its way with her as Guy and others look on approvingly.
Levin, the author, does a wonderful job of making the reader struggle along with his protagonist. Rosemary begins to suspect that her neighbors, her doctor, and even her loving husband are conspiring against her, and gaslighting her into thinking her pregnancy is going according to plan, when, in fact, her body is nourishing a monster. Part of Rosemary does not want to believe such horrible things are happening, despite the impassioned warnings of a male friend who digs a little too deeply into the curious goings-on. Likewise, the reader suspects Rosemary’s fate is not a good one, but the nugget of doubt keeps the reader turning pages until the perfectly devilish conclusion.
Which brings me to Tiffany McDaniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything. This is not a horror novel; rather, it’s a dark coming-of-age story about a young boy named Fielding Bliss who grows up in a town called Breathed (pronounced BRETH-ed), Ohio, during a particularly hot summer in the early 1980s. Circumstances convince Fielding’s father, a kind man named Autopsy — give McDaniel credit for inventive character names — to advertise a peculiar invitation in the local newspaper: He welcomes the devil to visit and shake up their sleepy town.
Soon enough, the devil shows up… in the form of a thirteen-year-old black boy named Sal.
Sal looks nothing like one might expect from the Prince of Darkness: no horns, no hooves, no pitchfork. He does, however, have a peculiar way about him, and he seems to have no discernible past. Sal also possesses an uncanny ability to understand people’s intentions and past traumas, even if they cannot understand those things themselves.
Despite outcries from certain sects of Breathed’s population, led by a feisty dwarf named Elohim, the Bliss family takes Sal in as one of their own. That’s where the story gets good — amazing, in fact. Mysterious occurrences ensue. People die. Innocent snakes get set alight. (Great line, among too many to mention: “You can tell a lot about a man by what he does with a snake.”) Along the way, Fielding learns about kindness and cruelty, friendship and love, good and evil, life and death.
The writing ranks among the best I have ever had the pleasure to consume. Several times while reading this novel I stopped and nearly gasped at McDaniel’s talent for turning a phrase and plucking a nerve I didn’t know was there.
Of the sixty or so books I read last year, I consider The Summer That Melted Everything my favorite. I immediately bought McDaniel’s follow-up, Betty, which is a prequel of sorts. It, too, was incredibly well written, but reading it pained me because of the many hells the title character and her family must endure. It’s even more unsettling to consider the novelist’s suggestion that some of those hells were slightly fictionalized versions of episodes from her own family’s history.
Betty is one of the few books that I nearly stopped reading purely because of a scene’s intensity. The author took one step across a line that made me wonder if I wanted to finish; only the strength of the narrative kept me going. I’m glad I did because of the novel’s resolution, which included a graceful reintroduction to some of the characters from The Summer That Melted Everything.
I have read my share of horror novels flush with gore and brutality, and some of them have a permanent place on my bookshelves at home. Even so, my favorite horror stories, meaning the ones I will return to, have a certain elegance to them—moments of quiet and tenderness among the screaming and bloodshed. To me, few novels achieve this balance more effectively than the two I’ve outlined here.
William J. Donahue’s novel Burn, Beautiful Soul won the horror category in the 2021 International Book Awards. He also authored three short-story collections: Too Much Poison, Filthy Beast, and Brain Cradle, one of which (Filthy Beast) was a finalist for Foreword’s 2004 Book of the Year Award. His next novel, Crawl on Your Belly All the Days of Your Life, will be released in April 2022. He lives in a small but well-guarded fortress in the Keystone State, somewhere on the map between Philadelphia and Bethlehem. Although his home lacks a proper moat, it does have plenty of snakes.
Burn, Beautiful Soul —
Basil the demon king has come to a crossroads. He has grown tired of life underground and regretful of the atrocities he has committed to maintain his hold on power. Wanderlust leads him to the surface, to live freely among humans. Considering the state of the world, most humans seem unfazed by his arrival – but not all. A religious zealot with murderous intentions and a vengeful biker gang seek his end. Meanwhile, Basil must contend with two internal forces: the disturbing dreams that suggest he once walked the earth as a human; and the pull of the underworld, drawing him back to deal with the troubles he left behind – namely, a cunning foe who craves the throne, a monstrous kraken, and an ancient evil as cold and dark as the soil.
‘Burn, Beautiful Soul is The Wizard of Oz with a demon Dorothy… It is a loving but unsentimental dissection of America and its people. It is a story you will never forget.’ John Schoffstall, author of Half-Witch