Originally published in 1973 and adapted three years later for a film in the US, Burnt Offerings is described by Valancourt Books, the publisher of this new edition, as “one of the most original and scariest haunted house novels ever written”. That’s quite a claim, but I’d say it’s just about accurate. It’s certainly original and, in places, utterly chilling. Naturally, such originality proceeds from the fact it’s not a haunted house tale in the traditional vein.
Ben and Marian Rolfe yearn for an escape from the oppressive, boxed-in nature of their Brooklyn apartment. Marian’s aspirations for higher standards of more genteel living are contained and constrained by the size of the apartment and their means, and when the opportunity presents itself for them to rent a country mansion in Long Island filled with antiques for what seems a meagre asking price, it all seems too good to be true. But Marian feels that fate, for once, is smiling on her. Her innate acquisitiveness compels her to fall in love with the house from almost as soon as she’s walked through the front door. And of course it is all too good to be true: the single condition attached to the family’s tenancy of the old house for the summer, aside from generally acting as caretakers of the place, is that they also need to look after the aged Mrs. Allardyce.
When the Rolfes arrive to view the property, the custodians Roz Allardyce and her wheelchair-bound brother assure them that their mother never leaves her room and needs just three meals a day. They won’t be aware of her at all; they won’t even see her. To Marian, it all seems so straightforward, although Ben is unconvinced. However, the house is a dream-come-true for his wife and any negative reaction to the oddness of the Allardyces’ condition is clearly overshadowed by her desire to live a lifestyle she has only ever read about in the style magazines and covets almost beyond anything else. Ben’s scepticism is won over, at least partially, and they up sticks and move to the house with son David and Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth in tow, the promise being that Marian will deal with all of Mrs. Allardyce’s requirements.
That may all sound more or less like the opening of a typical haunted house story but Burnt Offerings is something else, and its horror is a more subtle and insidious thing. The imagery and atmosphere of the book is striking and memorable; its characters similarly well-drawn and credible, with the family dynamic especially convincing in its exploration of dysfunction and conflict. I can’t say too much about how the narrative darkens and develops because I feel that would spoil the story; suffice to say, it had me reading on until I’d finished the book very quickly indeed.
Does the reader ever encounter the matriarch of the house? You’ll have to read it to discover, but the gradual build-up of unease and horror into the novel’s final pages is, for me, masterfully done. What I really enjoyed is that Burnt Offerings’ conclusion is as enigmatic and ambiguous as the opening description of the prosaic city life of the Rolfes is humdrum. The story’s creeping arc of destruction is perfectly handled by Marasco – it moves at a fair pace – and what frightens in this is, arguably, the fabric and hunger of the house itself rather than its closeted, unseen inhabitant. But is she in control of, or controlled by, the mansion; from where does the malign influence emanate? It’s difficult to reach a final view on that, but that’s just part of what makes this novel so enjoyable: it’s a book that has stood the test of time over the last 40 years and will, I’m sure, delight readers looking for something a little different from the typical supernatural tale.
Burnt Offerings is available direct from the publisher, in both print and ebook formats, as well as from the usual other outlets.
[My apologies for the lack of activity on here: life has been busy recently and although I’ve not stopped reading during the time away from here, I’ve not gotten around to collecting my thoughts, despite my best intentions. I will try and post more often as we get into 2016!]