Due to the 1962 Robert Aldrich classic film starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Henry Farrell’s frightening book What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has been unfairly ignored. It’s a sad and terrifying tale of two sisters – Blanche and Jane Hudson – who are irrevocably linked due to ancient histories, past resentments, and a mysterious accident that left Blanche crippled and bound to a wheelchair. Removed from the campy legacy of the movie, Farrell’s novel stands alone as a potent thriller.
Blanche and Jane Hudson are former actresses – Jane, or “Baby Jane” was a child actress, like Shirley Temple, who was a big star and doted upon by their father; Blanche grows up resentful of her sister’s success and of her grip on their father’s love. She becomes a glamorous movie star, eclipsing her sister’s fame. The two lived fractured lives, sniping away at each other – then Blanche barely survives a car accident that crushes her legs and leaves her paralyzed. Jane’s involvement in the accident is ambiguous, but guilt, along with her jealousy of her beautiful sister drives her mad. She starts to abuse Blanche in horrific ways, sadistically terrorizing her.
In the canon of literary villains, Baby Jane Hudson ranks high – like all great characters of literature, Jane has moments of poignancy and pathos. She’s sad and pathetic, and all her behavior stems from envy, guilt, and a codependance, and not from a source of evil (though some of the cruel jokes she pulls are evil). Blanche , on the other hand, while more sympathetic, is less interesting. She’s less developed and doesn’t get as much shading as Jane – because of her injuries and vulnerable position, she’s given much less autonomy and agency than Jane.
Along with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the book includes Farrell’s short stories: “Whatever Happened to Charlotte?” (which Aldrich later made into another Bette Davis shocker, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte), “The Debut of Larry Richards” and “First, the Egg.” “Larry Richards” and “The Egg” both feel like episodes from The Twilight Zone, while “Charlotte,” a potent piece,” feels a bit like a retread of Baby Jane. None of the stories will be as moving or as frightening as Baby Jane, but are interesting curios of Farrell’s limited and overlooked oeuvre. Still, readers should seek out Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? to fully appreciate Farrell’s dark, gothic tale without the heavy albatross of the popular film.