William March’s classic horror tale (and final book), published in 1954. I read the Vintage edition paperback.
4.5 out of 5 stars.
Times Read: 2
A mild-mannered 1950s housewife is raising sweet-looking Rhoda, an eight-year-old serial killer.
The Bad Seed is written in third person, staying mainly with Christine Penmark as she discovers her daughter’s terrible secrets. March allows us into other characters’ heads at times (including the building’s maintenance man and Christine’s upstairs neighbor), but he never lets us know what Rhoda is thinking. We observe her actions, expressions, and outward reactions but they seem like an alien trying to mimic proper human behavior. March’s success in The Bad Seed is making Rhoda an unsettling, inhuman blank. She’s a great horror villain; justifying any action to get what she wants (she will kill for trinkets) and seeing no worth in the lives of others.
March stands damn close to the level of Truman Capote, Shirley Jackson and Ira Levin in his ability to build excellent plots one strong sentence at a time. There are no signs of struggle or elbow-nudging; March maintains incredible command and confidence. Like Levin, he is deftly constructing a machine of finely tuned pieces. The Bad Seed anticipates so much of Rosemary’s Baby (review) that I’m convinced Levin was an admirer, though Levin ultimately did a better job. He wasted nothing in his trim tale while March’s story spends 30 pages stalling before the climax. Other than that, The Bad Seed is excellent, wicked fun.
“The landscape at that point reminds one so much of those charming river scenes by Bombois (…) For the sake of some of the younger groups, Bombois is a modern French primitive. Oh, he is so cunning in his artlessness!”
Camille Bombois (1883 – 1970) was a French naïve painter especially noted for paintings of circus scenes. Critics compared Bombois’ work to that of Henri Rousseau, which it resembled in its naïve drawing, crisp delineation of form, and attention to detail, although Bombois was less a fantasist than Rosseau.
“Such an immaculate, self-possessed little girl with flowing hair, striped stockings, laced boots, and a fur toque that matched a little fur muff.”
noun – a woman’s small hat, typically having a narrow, closely turned-up brim.
(historical) – a small cap or bonnet having a narrow brim or no brim.
(Canadian) – a close-fitting knitted hat, often with a tassel or pom-pom on the crown.
 March uses fablelike names: Rhoda Penmark will kill a classmate for a penmanship medal that she believes is rightfully hers; Monica Breedlove is affectionate to the point of oppression; Christine is our martyr.
“Oh, my penurious little sweetheart (…) Oh, my thrifty little housewife.”
adjective – (formal) – extremely poor; poverty-stricken.
 On a functional, word-for-word level, this is such good writing:
He stared insolently at her, as though undecided what his next move should be; then, regretfully, he shifted the hose so that the water fell on the lawn.
That good-looking Mrs. Penmark, that dizzy blonde, didn’t know what it was all about. She was too dumb, when you came right down to it, to understand his contempt for her. She was one of them soft, easily-taken-in ones that was eat up with kindness. You could do that one a dirty trick, but instead of hitting back, or hating the hell out of you, she’d feel guilty, instead, thinking she must be the one that was wrong.
Leroy unscrewed the hose from its faucet and prepared to put it away in the basement, thinking: Nobody can put nothing over on Rhoda, I’ll say that much for her. And nobody can put nothing over on me, neither. I guess Rhoda and me are just alike.
But in this he was mistaken, as we shall see in time, for Rhoda was able to put into action the things that he could only turn over in his mind as fantasies.
The mystery here isn’t whether or not Rhoda is evil; March lets us know within thirty pages that she’s murdered before. The tension becomes: Who is Rhoda’s next target? Everyone around her is at risk and we realize that far sooner than Christine, her mother.
March does a marvelous job letting us know right away that shit is on its way to the fan, first through Leroy’s thoughts, quoted above, and then with:
[Christine] seated herself at her desk to answer the letter, but first she rested her hands against her cheeks, and looked out at the soft, green street, holding on to her happiness, which was wise, for it was the last she was ever to feel.
“While we advocate the democratic ideal, we are convinced that such an ideal is possible only where all members of a particular group come from the same level of society, preferably a high one.”
The boy was pale and remarkably thin, with a long, wedge-shaped face, and a full, pink underlip that puckered with an inappropriate sensuousness. His mother stood possessively beside him – an intense woman with protruding eyes.
What else to you need to know? March nails this. We see the boy, we see his mother, we understand everything. In two sentences.
“Every age that people live in is an age of anxiety.”
 On first glance, the following seems too on-the-nose and a misstep from March:
It seemed to [Christine] suddenly that violence was an inescapable factor of the heart, perhaps the most important factor of all – an ineradicable thing that lay, like a bad seed, behind kindness, behind compassion, behind the embrace of love itself. Sometimes it lay deeply hidden, sometimes it lay close to the surface; but always it was there, ready to appear, under the right conditions, in all its irrational dreadfulness.
But take into account that we’re listening to Christine’s thoughts, not March’s (the same way we were listening to Leroy, not March in note ). Christine’s tragic flaw is seeing the actions of others as nebulous, distant, uncontrollable things. She has already assigned herself the role of helpless, unintelligent victim and remains in this disturbingly romanticized mindset even when we can clearly see she has the capacity for action and intelligence.
Christine and Eleanor from The Haunting of Hill House are the same women in alternate realities. This is something else Levin improved on in Rosemary’s Baby, by the way: Rosemary Woodhouse takes constructive action for herself. (This is more a reflection of change between fifties and sixties sensibility than the abilities of the authors.)
[Freud] had suggested that she go to London and seek the aid of his pupil Dr. Aaron Kettlebaum.
(p.36 – 37)
Invented for this story.
“I once believed I was a foundling with royal blood – Plantagenet, I think it was.”
The House of Plantagenet was a royal house which originated from the lands of Anjou in France. The family held the English throne from 1154, with the accession of Henry II, until 1485, when Richard III died.
It was true that she ranked [Reginald] miles below an inspired psychiatrist like Dr. Wertham. She did not even consider him on a par with men like Bolitho and Roughead.
Fredric Wertham (1895 – 1981) was a German-educated American psychiatrist and crusading author who protested the purportedly harmful effects of violent imagery in mass media and comic books on the development of children. His best-known book, Seduction of the Innocent (1954), suggested that comic books were dangerous to children.
William Bolitho Ryall (1891 – 1930) was a South African journalist, writer and biographer. His bestseller Twelve Against the Gods (1929) covered the lives of twelve individuals, including Alexander the Great, Cagliostro, Isadora Duncan, and Woodrow Wilson – the theme of adventure united the subjects.
It seems he was most often known as “Bolitho,” as this was also how he was referred to in Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying (note ).
William Roughead (pronounced Rockheed) (1870 – 1952) was a well-known Scottish lawyer and amateur criminologist. He was an important early practitioner of the modern “true crime” literary genre.
He would have been surprised to know that, in a sense, he was in love with the little girl, and that his persecution of her, his nagging concern with everything she did, was part of a perverse and frightened courtship.
The living-room had that depressing look of expensive bad taste.
The lesson this particular Sunday was concerned with one of the bloodier precepts of the Old Testament; it centered around the damnation and most cruel destruction of those who had been unable, or unwilling, to conform blindly to some Hebraic party line of the day.
She had her prize tucked under her arm; it was a copy of Elsie Dinsmore.
Elsie Dinsmore is a children’s book series written by Martha Finley (1828 – 1909) between 1867 and 1905. The first Elsie books deal with a constant moral conflict between Christian principles and family loyalty.
 Most of the characters in this book are unlikable; it adds to the schadenfreude. But Christine’s interactions with Monica’s brother and his friend drift toward disgusting in a way that I don’t think March intended. Christine never shows issue, even within her own thoughts, of being a piece of meat to these men:
Emory kissed [Christine] loudly on the cheek and said, “This one’s got it, hasn’t she, boy? This one’s really stacked.” (…)
[Reginald] patted Christine’s shoulder and said, “Is everything under that black satin dress you?”
Christine took her drink and said, “I get it from the upholsterer. He comes in twice a week and fluffs me out.” She laughed and pulled away, thinking: Rhoda probably did follow the boy down the beach.
Christine’s a nervous neurotic; none of her interactions come easy. Other than this one, it seems. Just one moment of Christine being disgusted/annoyed by them would have been wonderful for the character. But I don’t think March knows this behavior is gross. And I don’t think he knows how weird it is for a timid woman to joke about her body with virtual strangers.
Assuming the best of March, he could be implying that Christine is so used to behavior like this that she can handle it on autopilot.
Her daughter (…) was playing under the Kunkel’s big scuppernong arbor.
The scuppernong is a large variety of muscadine, a species of grape native to the Southern United States. It is usually a greenish or bronze color and is similar in appearance and texture to a white grape, but rounder and larger. The name comes from the Scuppernong River in North Carolina.
 I don’t know how popular a concept sociopathy was in 1954, but man, March is creating a textbook example with Rhoda. He goes a step farther, though. More than mentally different, Rhoda is inhuman. He refers to her as “the child” when she begins really working the manipulation angle:
The child remained silent, her mind working, waiting shrewdly for her mother to continue talking and betray the answer she expected.
“Do you understand at all, Rhoda?”
“I suppose so, Mother. Well, I guess so, Mother.”
But Christine sighed and thought: She doesn’t understand at all. She hasn’t the least idea what I mean.
Rhoda shook her head, and said stubbornly, “It was silly to want to bury the medal pinned on Claude’s coat. Claude was dead, wasn’t he? Claude wouldn’t know whether he had the medal pinned on him or not.”
The child felt her mother’s sudden, and, to her, inexplicable, disapproval; and then, as though to win back the ground she had lost, she kissed her mother’s cheek with little hungry kisses. “Oh, I’ve got the sweetest mother!” she said. “I tell everybody I know I’ve got the sweetest mother in the world!”
Throwing herself on the sofa, [Rhoda] buried her face in a pillow and wept plaintively, peering up at her mother through her laced fingers. But the performance was not at all convincing (…)
The child, seeing she was not impressing her mother, got up from the sofa, walked leisurely to Christine, and stood before her. “I hit him with the shoe,” she said calmly. “I had to hit him with the shoe, Mother. What else could I do?”
Suddenly the child wiped away her tears, embraced her mother, and said coquettishly, “Oh, I’ve got the prettiest mother! I’ve got the nicest mother! That’s what I tell everybody. I say, ‘I’ve got the sweetest-’ ”
“How did the bruises get on the back of his hands, Rhoda?”
Once in desperation, Mrs. Penmark said to the retreating child, “Don’t you love me at all? Don’t you have any affection for anyone? Are you entirely cold?”
And Rhoda, moving implacably toward the door, not knowing what was expected of her, laughed charmingly, tilted her neck in the gesture she knew older people found irresistible, and said, “You’re silly! I think you’re silly!”
(p.169 – 170)
Kudos to March for making the touch and affection of a child cause skin-crawling revulsion.
“You’re looking a little pale and tired, my dear. You seem distrait.”
adjective – distracted or absentminded.
Gray mullet breaking the silence as they jumped in long, graceful arcs over the sandspit that ran out from shore.
noun – a narrow point of sandy land projecting into the sea.
Guilt, when you examined it dispassionately, could be seen to be only a painful form of pride.
“Monica thinks man’s mind can be changed through lying on a couch and talking endlessly to another man who is often as lost as the patient. Really, Monica is far more trusting and romantic than I.”
Rhoda was dressed in white lawn embroidered in yellow.
Lawn cloth or lawn is a plain weave textile, originally of linen but now chiefly cotton. Lawn is designed using fine, high count yarns, which results in a silky, untextured feel.
Her mind no longer moved in the straight line of rational thought; it turned like a rotating wheel in rapid, intense circles of emotion which she seemed unable to escape.
(p.129 – 130)