I’ve always been a fan of the genre I think of as “apartment gothic,” those books or movies in which the city apartment becomes a threatening, claustrophobic place. My favorite is Rosemary’s Baby, the terrific supernatural novel by Ira Levin that was turned into Roman Polanski’s masterpiece. In both the book and the film, the apartment building, The Bramford, which is loosely (or not so loosely) based on The Dakota in New York City, is central to the premise of the book.
Yes, the real villains of Rosemary’s Baby might be the coven of Satanists looking to recruit a young married couple for their nefarious purposes, but they only exist because The Bramford does, with its history of horror and mayhem. And in her spacious, elegant apartment, Rosemary becomes trapped in a nightmare.
I thought about Rosemary’s Baby when I began to plot out my new novel, Her Every Fear. In my book, Kate Priddy is a Londoner who agrees to swap apartments with a second cousin from the United States for six months. She’s never met him before but she agrees, partly to try and overcome a near-debilitating anxiety issue. When she arrives she finds a high-ceilinged turn-of-the-century apartment with a few secrets of its own. I very much wanted the apartment to not only serve as a crucial piece of the plot, but also as its own character. Kate doesn’t trust the regular inhabitant of the apartment—her cousin Corbin—but she’s not sure she trusts the apartment itself.
There are many other examples of “apartment gothic” that served as inspiration for this book. Ira Levin penned another one himself, his last book, called Sliver, a book that delves into the theme of voyeurism, something I also explore in Her Every Fear. And Roman Polanski made two other films—The Tenant and Repulsion—in which residents of an apartment go through as much turmoil as Rosemary does.
There are others. I’m very fond of Wait Until Dark, the play about a blind woman in a Greenwich Village apartment fending off drug dealers. That play is by Frederick Knott, who also wrote Dial M for Murder, another thriller set entirely in one apartment. I even like the books or movies that aren’t quite first rate; there’s a Doris Day film called Midnight Lace, in which a newlywed living on Grosvenor Square in London begins to suspect someone stalking. You can probably guess the rest.
I think what I like most about this type of story is that when you take away the safety of a home you leave your main character in a terrible position. There is nowhere to turn, nowhere to run. It’s why haunted house stories are popular as well. Of course, the problem with haunted house stories, always, is how to get the inhabitants to stay in the house. Why don’t they run? That’s why I think that a lot of the best “apartment gothic” stories involve inhabitants who are not sure if they danger they perceived is real or imagined. Rosemary begins to sense the truth, but can’t quite believe it. Kit Preston, the character played by Doris Day in Midnight Lace, doesn’t know if she is actually being stalked, or if it’s all in her head. They begin to doubt their own minds. And they stick it out to find out if the creatures in the shadows are real or not.
Her Every Fear by Peter Swanson is out now (Faber & Faber, £12.99)