This might surprise you, but I never really liked English classes in school. I wasn’t the best essay writer, and from about eighth grade on I was frustrated with most of the books we had to read and examine. Almost none of the books interested me, and can you really blame me? How many 13-year-olds really understand and absorb the story of The Odyssey, for example? I certainly didn’t, and I had absolutely no interest in doing so.
That’s probably why The Bad Seed sort of passed me by the first time I read it. It was in my ninth grade English class, and looking back on it, it seems like we were reading a new book every two weeks. For once, though, this wasn’t a bad thing; our teacher, Mr. Shelley, seemed remarkably attuned to what ninth graders might enjoy, and while we did read some obviously straight-from-the-curriculum books (Of Mice and Men, The Odyssey), we also read others, like The Bad Seed, that I’ve never heard of anyone else reading for a class. And now that I’ve read it again as an adult, I’m wishing I could remember the conversations we had had about it in class, because I bet they were interesting.
The Bad Seed picks up on a charming vignette—an elementary school’s summer picnic—darkened by the kind of foreshadowing you can only get in books written several decades ago: “Later that summer, when Mrs. Penmark looked back and remembered…it seemed to her that June seventh, the day of the Fern Grammar School picnic, was the day of her last happiness…” It’s not long before we discover that Mrs. Christine Penmark, mother of Rhoda Penmark, has a good reason for her despair: her eight-year-old daughter is, to put it simply, a murderous sociopath.
Naturally, Christine is reluctant to believe her child capable of inflicting such pain and suffering, even though she and her husband (who is away for work for the large majority of the novel) often speak privately of their child’s odd habits and lack of affection. When she can no longer deny Rhoda’s penchant for calculated, cold-blooded murder, she begins to wonder what could have contributed to such a tendency, and unwittingly stumbles upon unsavory memories from her past that, until now, had been well forgotten.
Now, aside from being a good thriller (eight-year-old serial killer? How could you pass that up?), there are a few things that stand out to me now that probably would have gone right over my head in ninth grade; namely, the fact that William March was apparently a big fat misogynist. Not exactly surprising for a man in the 1950s, especially when judging by today’s standards, but wow: there was not a single positively-represented female character in this book. Of the three main female characters, Rhoda, of course, is a cold-blooded murderer, despite her sweet dresses and perfectly plaited pigtails; Christine is flighty, timid, and does very little the whole book except wring her hands; and the Penmarks’ neighbor, Mrs. Breedlove, is a brassy, gossipy woman who prides herself on her ability to analyze people, and yet misses the hatching serial killer right under her nose. Other, more minor female characters, like the sisters who run the grammar school Rhoda attends, are also portrayed unflatteringly.
What bothered me most about the portrayals of women in The Bad Seed was that March managed to take positive qualities and twist them so monstrously that they became negative. Aside from the whole murdering thing, Rhoda is an intelligent and inquisitive child, artless perhaps but determined to excel is everything she does. Mrs. Breedlove, too, is obviously a smart lady and very well versed in Freudian psychology, as well as being a kind and solicitous person. But March takes all these positive qualities and twists them beyond recognition as if to say, “See what you get when you let women use their intelligence?” And yet Christine, the quiet, kind woman who wears pretty dresses and lets the men do the thinking, still isn’t rewarded for being what you’d imagine March’s ideal woman might be; instead, she frets and frets and even when she attempts to do something about her daughter, she fails.
Now, I didn’t mean for this review to become a treatise on feminism; it’s just kind of shocking how much you can miss the first time around when you’re not paying attention. (And believe me, I wasn’t, despite my growing interest in horror—particularly woman-centric horror—thanks to V. C. Andrews.) I wrote this off in ninth grade as just another book I “had” to read, and therefore one that wasn’t worth much attention aside from the inevitable reading quizzes and/or essay we would have to do. I wish now that I had; maybe I’d have gotten into the horror genre sooner, or at the very least realized that not everything we read in school was terribly boring.
So anyway, aside from the blatant misogyny, The Bad Seed is a fun, fast read for a fan of the slow-burn horror genre. And for those of you who like classic horror films, The Bad Seed was also made into a 1956 film directed by Mervyn LeRoy.by