The Bad Seed (1954) by William March

Book cover of The Bad Seed by William March (1954)

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Some murderers, particularly the distinguished ones who were going to make great names for themselves, usually started in childhood; they showed their genius early, just as outstanding poets, mathematicians, and musicians did.”

Little Rhoda Penmark isn’t like other children. Unfailingly polite and diligent, the  “old-fashioned” young girl is doted on by adults. She doesn’t get along with children her own age, however, especially classmate Claude Daigle, who wins a prize Rhoda had her heart set on.

When Claude drowns during a school picnic, Rhoda takes her first experience of death a little too calmly. Christine Penmark starts to wonder whether her little girl is quite as innocent as she looks…

The Bad Seed tackles the difficult question of what to do with child psychopaths. It’s a controversial topic even today, so this book was hugely shocking in the 1950s, a period which idealized childhood and family life. The issues raised by the novel are still timely. What causes a child to grow up without developing empathy? Is it possible for them to learn these emotional skills and have healthy relationships with others, or are such children doomed for life? Safe to say, the solution proposed by author William March in the case of little Rhoda should not be applied to the general population.

Although Rhoda’s father is working overseas, she has a number of adults in her life, both loving and otherwise. Neighbor Monica Breedlove is a wonderful grotesque. A Lady Bountiful who bulldozes her victims with benevolence whether they want it or not, Monica was psychoanalyzed thirty years ago and never got over it. “My incestuous fixation on poor Emory is so obvious that it doesn’t need elaboration; so I won’t attempt any,” she cheerfully announces, “being that incest is so trite.” The delicious irony is that Monica, who pathologizes everyone she comes in contact with, is completely fooled by Rhoda, the most disturbed individual in her orbit.

Book cover of The Bad Seed by William March (1954)Then there is Leroy the handyman, who recognizes Rhoda as a kindred spirit. While he leads an active and disturbing fantasy life, he would never dare act on his desires, contenting himself with scaring the neighborhood children. Rhoda, the one child who won’t be scared, becomes his special target. Their conversations show a mature child and a childish adult interacting on exactly the same level, as he taunts her about “the little pink electric chair” for “mean little gals.” Little does he know just how mean Rhoda can get.

Most important is Rhoda’s mother. Christine loves her daughter, but harbors few illusions about her.

She’s done something naughty, thought Christine; something very naughty indeed to make her go to such trouble to please me.

It seemed to her then that her child, as though sensing for the first time that some factor of body or spirit separated her from those around her, tried to conceal the difference by aping the values of others; but since there was nothing spontaneous in her heart to instruct her, she must, instead, consider, debate, experiment, and feel her way cautiously through the values and minds of her models.

When a chance remark by Monica leads Christine to reexamine her own past, she may have found an explanation for her daughter’s issues, but at a high cost to her own peace of mind.

For author William March, this book (his only crime novel) was the culmination of a lifelong interest in true crime, as he developed the character of Rhoda over many years. Ironically, he suffered a massive heart attack shortly before the publication of The Bad Seed and died a few weeks later. He lived just long enough to see his book become a massive bestseller and cultural phenomenon.

The Bad Seed 1956 film

As a teen, I was obsessed with the campy film version of The Bad Seed, even screening it for friends at my sixteenth birthday party (they were less than appreciative). Expecting equal hilarity from the novel, I was pleasantly surprised by how good it is. For one thing, it’s intentionally funny while at the same time even comic-relief characters like Monica show surprising depth. But the star of the show is little Rhoda, whose murderous proclivities pose certain parenting challenges.

She said, “If I let you go, you must promise not to do anything to Mrs. Forsythe. Do you understand me?”

“No, Mother. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Please, Rhoda! Let’s not have any more charm or acting. We understand each other very well. Let’s be natural with each other from now on. You know quite well what I’m talking about.”

Rhoda giggled, nodded her head, and said in a matter-of-fact voice, “I know what you mean. But I won’t do anything to her.” And then, pressing her hands together, rolling her eyes roguishly, she added, “Aunt Jessie hasn’t got anything I want.”

It’s not a perfect book; there’s a lot of fifties pop psychology, too many fictional “true-crime” case studies, and far too many dream sequences. Christine really wallows in her predicament, though I suppose she’s entitled.

Nonetheless, as the novel builds to its harrowing conclusion, it’s impossible to put down. It seems the story is heading in a certain direction, but the author wouldn’t possibly go there—would he? The Bad Seed is an audacious work with the nerve to follow through on its pitch-black premise.

Second Opinions

James Kelly, New York Times Book Review, April 11, 1954

Let it be said quickly: William March knows where human fears and secrets are buried…nowhere is this gift better displayed than in The Bad Seed — the portrayal of a coldly evil, murderous child and what she does to both victims and family. In the author’s hands this is adequate material for an absolutely first class novel of moral bewilderments and responsibilities nearest the heart of our decade […] Venturing a prediction and a glance over the shoulder: no more satisfactory novel will be written in 1954 or has turned up in recent memory.

Dan Wickenden, New York Herald Tribune Book Review, April 11, 1954

Dark, original, ultimately appalling, William March’s extraordinary new novel is, on the obvious level, a straightforward, technically accomplished story of suspense. The manner of its telling — the dispassionate, exact, almost starched prose, with its occasional glints of sardonic humor — is an impressive achievement in itself. It lends some credibility to a narrative against which the imagination rebels; and towards the end, as horror is piled upon horror, it saves the book from falling headlong into absurdity… This is a novel bound to arouse strong responses, to generate vehement discussion, and so not easily to be forgotten.

Availability

The Bad Seed is available in paperback and ebook from Vintage in the US and UK.

This has turned out to be a timely review because, unbeknownst to me, Lifetime recently aired a new remake of The Bad Seed, with Christine portrayed by Rob Lowe (the role he was born to play). Patty McCormack, who played Rhoda on Broadway and in the original 1956 film, also appears. It will air again this Saturday, October 6, at 6:00 pm EST. This is surely quality cinema and I can’t wait!


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