Burnt Offerings: A good haunted house tale

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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.

Publisher: Ben and Marian Rolfe are desperate to escape a stifling summer in their tiny Brooklyn apartment, so when they get the chance to rent a mansion in upstate New York for the entire summer for only $900, it’s an offer that’s too good to refuse. There’s only one catch: behind a strange and intricately carved door in a distant wing of the house lives elderly Mrs. Allardyce, and the Rolfes will be responsible for preparing her meals. But Mrs. Allardyce never seems to emerge from her room, and it soon becomes clear that something weird and terrifying is happening in the house. As the suspense builds towards a revelation of what really lies behind that locked door, the Rolfes will discover that their cheap vacation rental comes at a terrible cost… The basis for a classic 1976 film adaptation and an acknowledged influence on Stephen King’s The Shining, Burnt Offerings is one of the most original and scariest haunted house novels ever written. This edition, the first in decades, features a new introduction by award-winning author Stephen Graham Jones.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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3 comments

  1. This sounds really good, and since The Shining wasn’t scary enough for me, I think I’ll have to give Burnt Offerings a try. Thanks, Sandy!

    • Sandy Ferber /

      You’re quite welcome, Jana. I’ve long maintained that “The Shining” is overrated in the Scares Department, but that it IS extremely exciting and suspenseful. “Burnt Offerings” is a lot more eerie, but again, nothing tops “The Haunting of Hill House” for chills. Brrrrr….

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