I have read this (massive) book in less than two days. And while I could remember parts of it, I read it first so long ago that the entire story seemed new. And I absolutely love the scare factor.
If you’re looking for a Halloween read, why not give it a go. It has a bit of madness that might call out to your own.
If you want to read a story about an insane cop (remember Desperation?) and a wife beater and general abusive husband, about a wife who barely manages to escape with her life, a brand new start far away and a haunted painting, you’ve picked up the right book.
It’s best to be ruthless with the past
The story begins 8 years ago when Rosie loses her unborn child due to a punch she “deserved” from her husband. She knows what to say to the medics team – she clumsily fell down the stairs – but she is now too afraid to run away, to scared of her husband. He’s a cop, he knows people.
Oh God please, she thinks. Please let the baby be okay. But now, as her breath finally begins to ease alittle, she realizes that the baby is not okay, that he has made sure of that much, anyway. When you’re four months pregnant the baby is still more a part of you than of itself, and when you’re sitting in acorner with your hair stuck in strings to your sweaty cheeks and it feels as if you’ve swallowed a hot stone.
Something is putting sinister, slippery little kisses against the insides of her thighs.
She decides to run away one afternoon when she’s making the bed and she spots one drop of blood which probably escaped her nose when she was sleeping. She knows what caused it: he had an anger outburst the day before because she spilled some tea:
That was what had happened last night, when she brought him a second glass of iced tea and spilled some on his hand. Pow, and her nose was gushing like a broken water-main before he even knew what he was doing. She saw the look of disgust on his face as the blood poured down over her mouth and chin, then the look of worried calculation — what if her nose was actually broken? That would mean another trip to the hospital. For a moment she’d thought one of the real beatings was coming, one of the ones that left her huddled in the corner, gasping and crying and trying to get back enough breath so she could vomit. In her apron. Always in her apron. You did not cry out in this house, or argue with the management, and you most certainly did not vomit on the floor — not if you wanted to keep your head screwed on tight, that was. Then his sharply honed sense of self-preservation had kicked in, and he had gotten her a washcloth filled with ice and led her into the living room, where she had lain on the sofa with the makeshift icepack pressed down between her watering eyes.
She is thinking of all the blows that she endured, all the punches in her kidneys that turned her urine reddish and made her back ache.
“If this goes on, he’ll kill me,” she said, and after she got over her momentary surprise, she supposed it was the drop of blood — the little bit of herself that was already dead, that had crept out of her nose and died on the sheet — she was speaking to. The answer that came back was inside her own head, and it was infinitely more terrible than the possibility she had spoken aloud: Except he might not. Have you thought of that? He might not.
So she takes her purse, picks up his ATM from the mantelpiece, withdraws 350 dollars from his card and picks up a cab and then a bus to the furthest city she can go to – a whooping 850 miles away. She arrives in the big city and realizes she had been locked up for most of her life, her family dead in a car crash and her husband making sure she never got to close to anything or anyone but his fists.
The terminal appeared to grow before her eyes until it was as large as a cathedral, and there was something horrifying about the tidal movements of the people in its aisles and alcoves. A man with a wrinkled, pulsing bag of flesh hanging from the side of his neck trudged past her with his head down, dragging a duffelbag after him by its string. The bag hissed like a snake as it slid along the dirty tile floor. A Mickey Mouse doll stuck out of the duffel’s top, smiling blandly at her. The godlike announcer was telling the assembled travelers that the Trailways express to Omaha would be departing Gate 17 in twenty minutes. I can’t do this, she thought suddenly. I can’t live in this world.
Putting herself together, she goes on the bus, throws his card away in a nearby bin and once she arrives she’s feeling this massive surge of relief tinted with worry.
I’ve gotten away from him, she thought. No matter what happens to me now, I’ve gotten away from him. Even if I have to sleep in doorways, or under bridges, I’ve gotten away from him. He’ll never hit me again, because I’ve gotten away from him. But she discovered she did not entirely believe it. He would be furious with her, and he would try to find her. She was sure of it. But how can he?
Months pass and he can’t get to her. All the cities he had searched turned out nothing and the only time he feels some luck returning to him is when his colleague arrest a hobo and find his credit card in his belongings. With a new fresh wind, he turns his eyes towards the big city 850 miles away and “becomes” Rosie, tracing her every movement, all the way to the same station she arrived in.
Rosie, in the mean time, arrived at Daughters and Sisters, a shelter for abused women, and is slowly regaining her trust and her self. She works as a maid and she develops a kinship with all the women there who understand what she had gone through as they all have a hell of their own.
She goes to find out how much her wedding ring is worth and is shocked to find it was very cheap. She trades it in for a painting that catches her eye.
“There were pictures all around it (an old tinted photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral, a watercolor of fruit in a bowl, gondolas at dawn on the Grand Canal, a hunting print which showed a pack of the unspeakable chasing a pair of the uneatable across a misty English moor), but she hardly gave them a glance. It was the picture of the woman on the hill she was interested in, and only that. In both subject and execution it was not much different from pictures moldering away in pawnshops, curio shops, and roadside bargain barns all over the country (all over the world, for that matter), but it filled her eyes and her mind with the sort of clean, revelatory excitement that belongs only to the works of art that deeply move us-the song that made us cry, the story that made us see the world clearly from another’s perspective, at least for awhile, the poem that made us glad to be alive, the dance that made us forget for a few minutes that someday we will not be. Her emotional reaction was so sudden, so hot, and so completely without connection to her real, practical life that at first her mind simply floundered, with no idea at all of how to cope with this unexpected burst of fireworks. For that moment or two she was like a transmission that has suddenly popped out of gear and into neutral-although the engine was revving like crazy, nothing was happening. Then the clutch engaged and the transmission slipped smoothly back into place.
It’s what I want for my new place, that’s why I’m excited, she thought. It’s exactly what I want to make it mine. She seized on this thought eagerly and gratefully. It would only be a single room, true enough, but she had been promised it would be a large room, with a little kitchen alcove and an attached bathroom. In any case it would be the first place in her whole life that was hers and hers alone. That made it important, and that made the things she chose for it important, too… and the first would be the most important of all, because it would set the tone for everything that followed. Yes. No matter how nice it might be, the room would be a place where dozens of single, low-income people had lived before her and more dozens would live after her. But it was going to be an important place, all the same. These last five weeks had been an interim period, a hiatus between the old life and the new. When she moved into the room she had been promised, her new life-her single life-would really begin… and this picture, one Norman had never seen and passed judgement on, one that was just hers, could be the symbol of that new life. This was how her mind-sane, reasonable, and quite unprepared to admit or even recognize anything which smacked of the supernatural or paranormal-simultaneously explained, rationalized, and justified her sudden spike reaction to the picture of the woman on the hill.”
It’s a woman staring at a fallen temple, wearing a golden plait and a rose madder chiffon dress. As she takes the paiting home, something seems to happen with it. It seems to grow, showing more details every day. A bit of a temple ruin, a grazing pony, a cart, and one day she starts finding grasshoppers in her house. She realizes that it’s the painting coming alive and one day, she dreams she steps into it.
In the painting she sees a woman, the servant of the woman on the hill, and she tells her to retrieve the child from the temple of the Bull and bring it to the goddess. Rosie embarks in a journey through her fears and while she keeps hoping it’s a dream, her scratches feel real and the danger more so. The bull is blind but can smell her and the taunts of her husband fill the air.
She gathers seeds from a tree to use as orientation through the maze and the purple of the fruit stains her hands and numbs her fingers.
She escapes the bull, runs with the child and delivers it frightfully to the woman.
“Rosie.” The voice was low and sweetly husky. Nevertheless, it sent a scutter of gooseflesh up Rosie’s back. There was something wrong with it, and she had an idea that wrongness might be something only another woman could hear-a man heard a voice like that, immediately thought about sex, and forgot everything else. But there was something wrong with it. Badly wrong.
“Rosie,” it said again, and suddenly she knew: it was as if the voice were striving to be human. Striving to remember how to be human.
“Girl, don’t you look straight at her,” the woman in the red robe said. She sounded anxious.
“That’s not for the likes of you.”
“don’t touch her, either. She don’t mean you no harm, but she ain’t got good control of herself no more.” She tapped her temple with one finger. Rosie turned reluctantly toward the woman in the chiton, and took a single step forward. She was fascinated by the texture of the woman’s back, her bare shoulder, and the lower part of her neck. The skin was finer than watered silk. But farther up on her neck… Rosie didn’t know what those gray shadows lurking just below her hairline could be, and didn’t think she wanted to know. Bites were her first wild thought, but they weren’t bites. Rosie knew bites. Was it leprosy? Something worse? Something contagious?
The goddess takes the child and coos at it and tells Rosie that all men are beasts to be broken down and she must break them or be broken. She leaves a present – her arm band and a promise. “And remember: I repay!”
Upon waking up, Rosie finds scratches all over her body and her fingers are purple. She also finds some seeds in a blood-soaked nightgown. She keeps thinking it might not quite be a dream that she had experienced. The Bull, Erinyes , was her husband and he was coming for her.
A formulaic oath in the Iliad invokes them as “the Erinyes, that under earth take vengeance on men, whosoever hath sworn a false oath”
She dies her hair blonde like the woman in the painting and accepts a date with Bill from the pawn shop. She is joining the world again, thinking happily about the party that Daughters and Sisters was throwing on Saturday, not knowing that her husband was in the same city, eyeing the same party.
Normal Daniels – anything but normal now – is slowly losing his mind. He saw the bull in his dreams and has migraines often – losing his senses and whereabouts. He is probably as mad as Rose Madder sitting on the hill. He knows he is insane and just wishes to “talk to Rosie real close” before getting caught. He had signs of madness before, when he and his partner beat and raped Wendy Yarrow, for which they received official reprimands. Yarrow later hired a lawyer in order to sue Daniels, Bissington and the Aubreyville Police Department, but turned up murdered before the case could move forward.
He also kills Peter Slowik, the kind man who helped his wife, and his jaw aches from all the bites he’s given him (over 80 in total and the penis was bitten off). There is probably a psychological issue in relation to his father – who on more than one occasion is mentioned to have requested an intimate time with his boy.
When Daniels goes to the fair, he gets spotted by Gerdie from the Daughters and Sisters association, despite his bald hair and wheelchair – and a fight ensues between the big girl and insane boy. She pins him down and on behalf of Rosie’s kidneys, she pees on him. I nearly fell off the sofa – I was so excited that someone really showed him what it feels to be the weaker one! And then I nearly died as he got back on top of her and managed to punch her. For some reason, I remembered wrongly from the previous time I read this book that Gert died – that she was stabbed by the insane monster that was Rosie’s husband. I was wrong or maybe this is a revised and happier version of the same story as Gertie survives and she only needs minor stitches from the hits.
The book continues with Rosie and Bill going to the police station for statements and then heading home together, just to be attacked in the hallway of her building by Norman.
Norman found out where she lived by going to Daugthers and Sisters, torturing and biting the owner of the shelter and then finding Rosie’s address after looking for her maiden name.
He then patiently went to her block, spotted the plain-color police car and faked a heart-attack in order to get both of the cops out of the car and when they got within reach, he killed them in cold blood, stuffing them in the boot and one next to him.
When he sees Rosie coming back home and with a guy of all things, he goes crazy and goes after them with intent to kill. Rosie shows some super-human strength at this point, grabbing Bill and almost dragging him one-handed up the stairs and all the way to the paiting.
When she sees the painting, she knows what she has to do. She has to step-through, with Bill, in the moonlit moonscape and get Norman to Rose Madder.
What happens next is horrific – Norman follows her wearing a mask of a Ferdinand bull he stole from the fair and when he steps through the portal, the mask fuses to his skin and he becomes Eriyneas The Bull. He goes after Rosie and as he is about to kill her, Rosie swaps places with Rose Madder.
Rose Madder is a rabbid beast, a goddess of destruction and because this happens in Mid-World, I kept on thinking that maybe Rose Madder is one with the Crimson King, or at least of the same species of spiders.
She devours the bull and then nearly goes after Bill before Rosie Real manages to escape back to the real-world.
She receives from the servant girl a potion with three drops meant to erase memory and she uses one for Bill, erasing the memories of the meadow, of Rose Madder, of the screams that came from the temple.
She manages to convince the police that she does not know where Norman went after he came in shooting into her apartment and he is gone forever. When her divorce came through, she marries Bill and if you think they lived happilly ever after, you would be wrong. He still woke screaming sometimes murmuring about “I will repay” and she used up her entire potions on him.
She also starts suffering from rages – imagining how it would be to smash a coworker’s face on her desk or how to kill people.
To make these go away, she uses the seeds she still had from the other world to plant a tree. And every year she would go and sit in the shadow of this death-tree and she would calm down again. But she knows that madness is real and whoever would eat from the fruit of that tree would die.
Best points: The description of madness (and the descent therein). And Bill
“To fully understand about hugging, maybe you had to have missed a lot of it.”
Not so good points: Rose returns to her world with the instructions from Rose Madder to “remember the tree”. It wasn’t very clear what would have happened if she didn’t plant the tree. Would she have gone mad? Like her husband? Like Rose Madder?