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!]
How could I resist a publication with such an ironic title? You’re right: I couldn’t. In fact, I purchased this a few weeks ago (it’s been available for a couple of months now), but have only now got round to reading it. On starting it last night, I finished it in one breathless session.
Untitled Ghost Story is a short novella by S. J. Moore, published by Salt in its Modern Dreams line. This is Moore’s first foray into supernatural fiction from what I can gather; he already has a series of well-regarded Arthurian fantasy novels behind him, the Children of the May series, although I suspect the writing here covers some very different territory to those books.
The Modern Dreams series is an ebook-only range focused on ‘gripping urban drama’. I confess that wouldn’t normally be the first thing I would reach for, but Moore combines the after-hours grit of a working-class pub and some salt-of-the-earth characters, with a real sense of the weird and a disturbing undercurrent that reaches its apogee in a very convincing and distressing denouement to the book.
Our story centres around Gav and Steve, both working to close up the Ben Lomond pub in Jarrow, a (now) post-industrial town in the north east of England.
Jarrow was of course a focus of the shipbuilding industry in the north east, and the book is threaded with the emotional baggage attached to that: pride in the hard work and hardship endured when shipbuilding was at its peak, and the sadness and anger at its decline and eventual disappearance, as well as the politics behind all of that.
It takes a few minutes to get into the swing of the dialogue, and indeed some of the narrative, which is in the Geordie dialect. Once you’ve grown accustomed to it, it works well. There’s a glossary at the end of the book for those who are really struggling with it, but I don’t think you will if you give this a chance. And interestingly, in this context, it’s not used for comic effect as it can be in M.R. James and the like. Make no mistake: these two men are not dusty antiquarians, nor the tugging-of-the-forelock yokels those antiquarians frequently encounter.
Untitled Ghost Story also has the accolade of having the most swearing I’ve ever read in a piece of supernatural fiction (and in many other contexts, probably, writers like Irvine Welsh aside…) – but it works in context. Yes, Gav is crude and foul-mouthed, but it serves to make him more credible and to bring his insecurities and prejudices to life for the reader. Would a working-class man, an assistant manager in a down-at-heel pub in a distressed town, talk any other way than Gav does in the book? I don’t think so. At the start, he is difficult to like. By the end of this short work, I cared about him, and I cared about Steve, the pseudo-intellectual student who’s working in the pub to pay his way through his degree and the writing of his dissertation, ‘Unknown Ghost Story: The Working Class as Demon in English Weird Literature’. Steve, naturally, thinks he has uncovered a previously untested angle in his research; Gav, naturally, couldn’t care less.
There’s a veritable sense of place in this novella: the Ben Lomond is a real pub in Jarrow and it obviously has considerable history. Perhaps you could go there and experience the events of the later part of the book; but I wouldn’t wish that on anyone… What follows the closing up of the pub at the start of the book is a heady cocktail (quite literally, in places) of hesitant and guarded reminiscences of school days (Gav and Steve were, it seems, peers), drink and drugs, relationships and the inevitable problems with relationships, acute cultural differences, politics, Marxism and much else. Spurred on by drink and Ecstasy donated by Gav, Steve becomes a walking, swaying, encyclopaedia of the historical and the theoretical, unburdening himself to his fellow worker with impunity. It’s only a matter of minutes into the book when you realise he and Gav are very different.
Ultimately, Steve can’t handle the combination of booze and drugs and has to leave, but not before there’s an odd accident with the bottle fridges behind the bar. Gav is furious; Steve is confused to be blamed. The former eventually sends the latter away and starts to clear up the mess on his own: there and then, Gav seals his fate and is assailed by a presence we never quite get to see. I found this final sequence of the book truly terrifying and the timing and narrative flow is striking: the pages turn and turn at a fair speed. I won’t say any more about the plot, because that would genuinely spoil it.
I thoroughly enjoyed Untitled Ghost Story for its keenly-wrought sense of pace, the very black humour, the realism of the awkward dynamic between Gav and Steve and for the unseen and unwritten horror of its conclusion. This last is expertly handled by Moore. He understands that too great a revelation can ruin a piece like this, and the bare hints the reader is presented with leave an altogether more chilling picture. This book is a rare thing: properly a work of folk horror, I think, but contextualised not in the commonplace rural setting but in the heart of a depressed area of high unemployment and low morale, and with a real historical basis at the core of its horror. I enjoyed this ‘gripping urban drama’ immensely.
The Loney is Andrew Michael Hurley’s first novel, after two collections of short stories (The Unusual Death of Julie Christie and Cages And Other Stories). As usual for Tartarus Press, the book is sumptuously presented, the oblique miniature on the dustjacket disclosing little about the novel’s contents but nonetheless setting the tone at just the right pitch from the outset: a haunting, blurred landscape sliced through by a menacing swathe of trees; in the background stands the shadow of an old house; this glimpse no more than a far-off echo of the titular stretch of brooding coastline which although unspoken is one of the novel’s main protagonists.
On the surface, the book is the story of the narrator Smith (does he have a first name? Smith seems such an everyman surname…) and his mentally disabled brother Andrew, or Hanny as Smith calls him. They gather with family and acquaintances for a pilgrimage to a noted Catholic shrine in a remote coastal area of Lancashire, ostensibly seeking a miracle ‘cure’ for Hanny. It is the story of a transformation, of transfiguration and of the place faith has in the boys’ lives and the lives of the others around them. Resolution of a sort does come, but the genesis of the miracle is uncertain and what will come later, after we read the final pages of the book, is terrifyingly unclear.
The book also struck me as being about loneliness and isolation. The Loney: shades of alone and lonely, though the word might at first seem a playful, even childish name for a stretch of countryside. It’s obvious as the book progresses that the Loney is unwelcoming and unforgiving. Hurley handles the effect of the landscape well and his narrative is allowed to unfurl at a pace which is perfectly suited to the story’s various minor and major revelations and which never feels hurried. The Loney as a place is ominously present throughout, even if not everything in the story occurs there. There is a highly convincing, pervasive atmosphere of uncomfortable dampness and otherness; a half-remembered feeling of the 1970s before the advent of a technology that no longer allows anywhere to be forgotten or abandoned.
Aside from the painterly skill with which he depicts the growing sense of unease and unreality in that forgotten landscape, it’s also noteworthy how the author reproduces the dialogue in the novel. The interaction of the dysfunctional main characters, all tied together by their devout Roman Catholicism and a strict over-reliance on its rituals and structure in the wake of the death of their former parish priest, is masterful. These people have little else in common but their faith, or what they perceive as faith; without it, everything else is lost and relationships crumble. The scenes where the characters converse, particularly the narrator and Father Bernard, are remarkably credible and fluid. I was there with them, eavesdropping, uncomfortable and uncertain; and also afraid.
What is also critical in the protagonists’ lives and in the story proper is the part played by faith, even if it’s obvious by the end that faith can take many forms, not all of them a matter of personal choice. I suspect that Hurley was brought up with Roman Catholicism: the detail of this in the novel is so authentic and convincing that I’d be surprised it he hadn’t been. Having had a similar upbringing, I found the novel all the more realistic for the verisimilitude of religious detail – and, by its end, that authenticity makes things quite horrific.
Father Bernard calls Smith by the nickname Tonto, no doubt after the Native American partner of the Lone Ranger (there’s that word lone again); that same Tonto who fondly calls the Lone Ranger kemosabe (‘faithful friend’). But Smith’s faith is uncertain, never clarified and by the end, even he is not sure what he believes, or if faith has transmogrified into fear.
When I think back on reading The Loney, I realise that, consciously or unconsciously, it is a book of dualities. Two very different houses, Moorings and Thessaly, separated by a dangerous stretch of coastline only passable at certain tides, and unpredictably so it seems. Separated, too, by their outlooks: on the surface, both faded, unwelcoming and alien, but the surprise comes with the revelation of which house breeds the stronger faith and which is filled with sickness.
Then there are the two boys, Smith and Hanny, opposites in some ways but who have a communication only they truly understand. There are the two priests, Father Wilfred, recently passed away, and Father Bernard, different aspects of Catholicism, the old and the new. And finally there is the competition of creeds which becomes the central brooding duality of the book.
Comparisons have been drawn between Hurley’s novel and The Wicker Man. I can see why that is, but I think it’s also slightly misleading. To me, the horror of The Wicker Man has always been that sense of finality and utter hopelessness in its denouement. It’s shockingly, brutally clear what befalls Howie in the climax to the film: we watch, horrified, in no doubt as to his fate, at least on Earth if not in the hereafter. With The Loney, things are a little different and left more vague; it’s a gnawing, questioning vagueness that one gets in the most oblique supernatural fiction. I’m still not certain, after quite a bit of reflection, what exactly happens in the concluding sections of this book and in my view that is a major triumph of the story. It’s the hidden spaces and the places in between that haunt this story, and raise doubts about what did happen to Hanny–and to the narrator–and what is to come after the last words of the novel end and only the blank page is left.
What I loved about The Loney is that it struck me as the kind of book Robert Aickman might have written if his strange stories had expanded into strange novels. Yes, it’s more narratively linear and “filled out” than Aickman’s work, and possibly Hurley’s portrayal of the novel’s human characters as distinct from the landscape is less contemptuous and alien than some of Aickman’s. There is, however, a real question at the end of this book as to what the horror actually was, or remains, and what we are meant to take from it. And that strikes me as remarkably Aickmanesque in tone, and therefore as a very good thing indeed.
The Loney is highly recommended for those who like articulate, striking supernatural writing that challenges after the fact and lingers in the memory. It’s one of the most convincing pieces of modern weird fiction I’ve read in a long time.
The book is available from Tartarus Press in both hardback and ebook formats. There is also a lovely book trailer and interview with the author on YouTube here, put together by the good folks at Tartarus.