For all those folks who have at times felt that their home and possessions owned them, rather than the other way around; for those folks who love a good haunted house/possession tale; and even for those readers who simply enjoy a well-told thriller of a page-turner, Robert Marasco‘s 1973 novel Burnt Offerings will be a real find. This was Marasco’s first novel in a sadly unprolific career; he came out with only two more titles – Child’s Play, a drama, in 1970, and Parlor Games, a Gothic-style mystery, in 1979 – before succumbing to lung cancer in 1998, at the age of 62. A real loss, if Burnt Offerings is any indication of the man’s skills.
In this work, we meet Ben and Marian Rolfe, a nice, ordinary couple from Queens, who, with 8-year-old son David and elderly Aunt Elizabeth in tow, rent an aging mansion on Long Island’s North Fork. This property is let for the unbelievably low price of $900 for the entire summer, with one proviso: The renters’ mother will remain in her room for the duration, but will stay out of sight and quite low maintenance. Marasco then begins to gently turn the screws, and before long, but insidiously, horrible things start to transpire. Marian becomes obsessed with keeping house, while her hair quickly grays; Ben starts to physically abuse his son uncontrollably and to suffer morbid hallucinations; and Elizabeth, once spry, starts to age at an alarming rate. It soon becomes obvious to the reader that the house is leeching the life out of its occupants, while in the process of revivifying itself. And that is just the start of this amazing story…
Marasco writes extremely well; it is hard for me to believe that this was his first novel. Yes, he is sometimes guilty of the faults of a beginning writer, such as an occasional bit of fuzzy writing and some instances of poor grammar and punctuation (granted, those latter are more the fault of Marasco’s editor). But what he excels at is beautifully rendered, realistic dialogue; I’ve seldom read better. His descriptions of Queens are also dead on the money (I should know; I live there); one can tell that Marasco was a native New Yorker. Perhaps I should also mention here that this book was chosen by no less a luminary than Stephen King for inclusion in Jones and Newman’s excellent overview volume Horror: 100 Best Books. It is easy to see the influence that Burnt Offerings had on King’s similarly themed The Shining, which came out four years later. But The Shining has always struck me as an excellent exercise in suspense, rather than being really scary (that bathtub scene excepted, natch), whereas Burnt Offerings has more scenes guaranteed to send shivers coursing down the spine. Every time Marian goes into Mother’s sitting room, and looks at the eerie photos on the table, and at that strangely carved door, and listens to the weird hum coming from Mother’s bedroom … well, it just keeps getting freakier and freakier.
Although perhaps not as chilling as Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House (but then again, how many books are?), Burnt Offerings can even hold its own in that august company. The folks in Richard Matheson‘s Hell House go through no greater horrors than the Rolfes do, either. The Rolfes are a sweet couple, and the reader roots for them, and hopes that they come through their ordeals okay. But with the creeping, living forces of the Allardyce mansion ranged against them, the odds are certainly not in their favor! Anyway, let me just say that I more than highly recommend this book to all readers.