Because of William March's indisputable classic, which was nominated for the 1955 National Book Award and which also introduced the term `bad seed' into the American lexicon, I don't think there is one person who has either read the novel or seen the film and not experienced their own share of shudders as well as a disturbing sense of the uncomfortable in the pit of their stomachs. Having read and seen both the novel and the black and white film adaptation of it, it still has the power to shock and jar me in a way I surprisingly did not believe was possible. I have read many novels peppered with good and bad children, from before the Victorian age down to the present times, but I have never come across a child antagonist close to anything like little eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark, the he bad seed, a young little girl who is outwardly impeccable and old fashioned to a fault, from her manners down to her very appearance.
Rhoda's questionable outward perfection and adult primness, however, only project and highlight the disturbing disfunction of the child's warped and concealed inner self, a dark self that is obvious only to Rhoda's mother, the often worried and guilt-ridden and sometimes beleaguered Christine Penmark. The latter behavioral symptoms of Christine only begin to manifest themselves upon the unfortunate and supposed accidental death of Claude Daigle, a timid boy whose meekness makes him a perfect target for bullies. Unfortunately, he is just one death in a growing list in which little Rhoda-by all outward appearances-is only indirectly involved. Or is it directly? Nobody but Christine is willing to entertain the thought or is even capable of connecting the dots. To understand her icy and aloof daughter, she must first understand herself as well as her linage. Christine makes many attempts to assuage her fears, using logic, most notably, to reason herself out of her anxiousness. To that extent, she would be taking a page from her uppity social butterfly of a landlady and good friend, Monica Breedlove, a busybody who has to be the center of attention almost all the time. She is somewhat of a novice in the area of psychology, claiming to have once been analyzed by Freud himself. With that claim and a sundry lot of reading into the annals of human behavior, she sees herself to be more in tune with explaining the hows and whys of human behavior. And she does not hesitate in the least to explain away the defects of those closest to her, starting with Leroy Jessup, the apartment's maintenance man, a fellow who is economically and culturally the low man on the totem poll. Monica Breedlove isn't fond of him and nor is Christine. But the feeling that he has towards them is mutual. And Rhoda, well, she tolerates him, but that's only because he acts as a kind of nemesis or foil for her. He is a man with dark and taunting thoughts, yearnings that can almost be labeled sickly pedophiliac. And one evil person can certainly detect another cut from the same cloth. And what Rhoda does to him is certainly not very proper. Yet, Monica's analyzing prowess is not limited simply to Leroy; she goes on to apply that entry-level psychology to her brother Emroy Wages, whom, in not so many words, she deems as a closeted homosexual. At one social gathering another character named Reginald Tasker, a writer and friend in Monica's circle gradually begins to talk crime history and the psychology of crime, addressing the assorted subjects due to Monica's prodding for intellectual and stimulating conversation and also because of Christine's deceased father, the noted journalist and war correspondent, Richard Bravo, a well known writer who covered the case of a serial killer named Bessie Danker, a murderess who was inspired by the true-life serial killer Belle Gunness, a woman who had a penchant for poisoning her husbands and then chopping them up while after feeding them to the pigs. Bessie Denker was a monster of a killer, a star among stars who probably started her human hunting early in life, but what is so tragic is that she had offspring, and Christine is in for a huge surprise as the novel progresses. As the shadow of the horrible slowly closes in upon Christine, especially with the death of Rhoda's classmate, Claude Daigle, so fresh in everybody's mind, but hers particularly so, Christine follows up with Reginald Tasker every now and then on the subject of killers and their development; she concocts a pet project of writing a novel about a child serial killer, which intrigues everybody. Yet, what they don't know is that her research doesn't begin at the library. It is under her very roof, and her disturbed daughter is getting wind of her mom's new found enlightenment of how things really are.
The Bad Seed was an uncomfortable read, because Rhoda is such a disturbing and conscienceless character, a little girl who has all the outward physical beauty and innocence of a child but who, internally, is nothing but a large black void. William March, the author of The Bad Seed, created something very unique with little Rhoda Penmark, and it is a creation that did not just come out of his imagination. The parallels of his life as well as the dark tumultuous undercurrents of his upbringing and world view clearly illustrate a man who was wounded and emotionally handicapped. Or, perhaps it was the world that was handicapped? Rhoda is the offspring of March's handicap. While the black and white film of The Bad Seed was good (it garnered four Oscar nominations), the ending deviated from the novel considerably and lessened its potency. But it was still interesting to watch. Before it hit the big screen, it was on Broadway, adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Maxwell Anderson. It garnered for its lead actress-Nancy Kelly-not only an Oscar nod but also the Tony Award. In reading The Bad Seed, I found the introduction by Elaine Showalter to be quite illuminating, offering many glimpses into March's possible thinking and how the deviant Rhoda Penmark quite possibly came about. Also helpful was an essay by Joyce Carol Oates in her work Where I've Been, And Where I'm Going: Essays, Reviews and Prose.