by Lindsey Ragsdale (@Leviathan15)
The house is always innocuous at first appearance. It sits on a lonely piece of land, it’s usually quite large, and always a few generations old. The group that moves in, temporarily or permanently, is typically a family, although sometimes it’s a loose bunch of acquaintances. No one stays in a haunted house alone. One thing’s for sure: each person will be uniquely challenged during their stay, and their secrets will be uncovered and used against them. The reader knows they aren’t to get too attached to any particular character.
In a novel where a house is the sinister antagonist, all of its residents are doomed, and we’re just along for the ride.
Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings is a standout horror novel that utilizes the haunted house setting to great effect. This novel famously influenced Stephen King’s The Shining, but the two stories are very different, so don’t skip Marasco just because you’ve read King’s novel or watched Kubrick’s adaptation. Though Marasco’s work is a tight read (the most recent paperback edition clocks in at 218 pages), he aims for quality over quantity, creating a consistently heightened sense of dread with each turn of a page. While King’s main character is a father, Jack Torrence, Marasco’s is Marian Rolfe, a mother. Given that Burnt Offerings was written in 1973, it offers up many of the conventional social roles of its time for a modern audience to both reflect upon and criticize.
If you’re looking for a classic haunted house novel, look no further than Burnt Offerings.
BEHIND THE PEN
Robert Marasco was born in 1936, and coincidentally his birthday (September 22nd) is the day after Stephen King’s birthday. He was a New York native, spending most of his life living in the city and surrounding area. He wrote two novels, Burnt Offerings in 1973 and Parlor Games in 1979.
Marasco wrote plays as well, which explains the effortless and realistic dialogue that flavors his novels. He wrote Child’s Play (no, nothing to do with Chucky) in 1970, a drama set in a Roman Catholic boys boarding school, which ran for 342 performances on Broadway. It won Tony Awards that year for acting, direction, and set design. To write the play, Marasco drew from his experience teaching classical languages and English at Regis High School in Manhattan. He wrote a second play, Our Sally, before his death in 1998.
A NO-SPOILER SUMMARY
Marian Rolfe is tired of her cramped apartment in Queens that she shares with her husband Ben and young son David. Summer is just around the corner and she dreads spending it in hot, muggy, New York City. An advertisement catches her eye for a summer rental in the country, promising to be “very reasonable for the right people.” Marian persuades Ben to visit the property, and they meet the Allardyces, who are leaving their sprawling, run-down mansion at Seventeen Shore Road for the summer, consequently making Marian and Ben an offer they can’t refuse.
There is one catch (isn’t there always?). The Allardyces’ elderly mother lives in a secluded wing off the main house, and the Rolfes must promise to be her temporary caretaker. It’s an easy task, as the old woman requires three simple meals a day, to be left outside her locked door, and no social interaction. Marian falls in love with the house and persuades Ben to agree with the rental terms. Soon, the Allardyces are off, leaving their mother behind, and Marian, Ben, David, and Aunt Elizabeth move in, ready for a summer of relaxation.
Slowly, the house begins to extend its cruel tendrils of manipulation and deceit . . . and their summer vacation becomes one that the Rolfes will never forget.
VOICES FROM WITHIN
The Society lapped up two haunted house novels in one month, Burnt Offerings being the second after Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall. Everyone was ready for a book heavy on ambiance and description, both must-have qualities of notable novels in this genre. Several opted for the audiobook version, praising the narrator’s voice and delivery. Some HOWLers couldn’t help themselves, devouring the book in a single session! True to form, they stayed mum during discussion, so no one encountered spoilers.
A side note for any Stephen Graham Jones fans out there (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t love his work?): he wrote the introduction for the 2015 republished edition, and it is delightful.
The 1970s is strong in this novel. Marasco’s writing is full of references to obsolete snack brands and outdated marriage dynamics. After taking a stroll down memory lane with an in-depth Dunkaroos discussion, the Society began dissecting Ben and Marian’s relationship and housing prices in NYC. Burnt Offerings is a slow burn for its first third—some enjoyed it, some less so, but all agreed that the book takes its time putting all the set pieces in order. As one member aptly pointed out, “Is it even a haunted house story if we don’t get a loving and overwrought description of every tapestry?”
All the buildup pays off in spades. The Society discussed one particular scene in great detail, unanimously agreeing on the ominous feel it added to the novel. Character boundaries are pushed, to introduce a chilling feel of unease, and familiar relationships evolve into more sinister forms of themselves. Is the house preying on our characters, or did they have a tendency towards cruelty all along?
Burnt Offerings is an absolute time capsule, bringing societal norms of its time into the limelight, such as roles of fathers and mothers, and husbands and wives. Reading this novel almost fifty years after it was first published highlights not only the radical changes in how society has changed today, but also the sinister ways in which it has stayed the same.
WELCOME TO THE BLURBS: HOWL SOCIETY MEMBERS’ REVIEWS IN THEIR OWN WORDS
- Written during the seventies, Marasco’s novel pulls no punches while highlighting class stratification and mortgage anxieties. Burnt Offerings paved the way for The Shining and The Amityville Horror which both hold an impoverished lower-middle class family at the crux of their haunted house stories.
- A solidly written haunted house tale. I can see why it is considered a classic in the genre. It doesn’t break new ground by today’s standards (having been written in 1973), but it is a fun read, spooky and bleak. Pick it up if you like horror that deals with class issues.
- A classic, slow burn that satisfies without resorting to extremes.
- Despite being a well-written book, my main thought while reading it was “you’re right, I should rewatch The Shining.”
- This book is why you don’t go on a vacation to fix your bad relationship. Just break up instead.
- Despite being nearly fifty years old, this book manages to offer a refreshing take on a tired trope. And in terms of style, Marasco nails a perfect execution of Poe’s “unity of effect.” No wasted effort here—every paragraph, every sentence, and every word point us directly to the terrifying denouement.
- This book was a bleak, helpless, and oppressive roller coaster ride. A must-read for any haunted house fans!
- This was a fantastic read and an excellent start to spooky season! I can see why this is a classic. I highly recommend giving it a go if you’d like to find out just how consuming one run-down house can become.
- Almost 50 years later, it’s hard to be surprised by the twists and turns of a story that influenced so many, but Burnt Offerings does a great job of showing the little nasty seeds in a person and how they can grow in times of stress. The dynamics between Marian, Ben, Aunt Elizabeth, and David are as rich as the setting in which they find themselves.
Received as a slam dunk for the most part by the Society, Burnt Offerings is everything one would want in an optimal haunted house novel. A sprawling, decrepit mansion, a family with secrets of their own, and a thrilling denouement—this novel is a classic for a reason, and a perfect choice to curl up with by the pool, or to listen to as you’re polishing your antique silver. Even if you think you know how it’s going to end, you’ll enjoy the journey regardless.