Happy New Year! Gone are our outmoded ways. Fresh on the scene are new beginnings! It’s all part of the cycle of life, with death being an integral part of this eternal succession. How timely it is that I get to review Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings – a book about a timeworn yet rejuvenating house that feeds off of the life force of its human occupants.
Approximately two months ago, I reviewed the corresponding movie. I praised the film then and I continue to like it. But I like the book even more. It’s a darn good novel. I think I can go so far as to say I love it! It’s unique and intriguing with page turning suspense. And yet, I do believe it’s a relatively obscure piece of work.
Remember, I said “relatively.” I’m sure many of you know about this book. But I’m willing to bet there are many other lovers of haunted house fiction that have never heard of this story. This is ironic, because the book is as monumental to this genre as The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. It has been said to be a major influence to Stephen King’s The Shining.
The latest edition of “Burnt Offerings” includes a foreword by horror author Stephen Graham Jones. In the intro, he praises the book as a masterpiece. Also, he offers an interesting contrast between two types of haunted houses. How could I not appreciate such juxtaposition after I myself wrote a piece delineating two haunted house themes; the house as a stage for ghosts to perform vs. the house as an entity in and of itself. Jones’s comparison is simpler and perhaps more interesting. He states that there are those haunted houses in literature that want you to stay away (i.e. the Amityville Horror house). Then there are those houses that want you inside their walls so that they might possess you, swallow you, kill you. Burnt Offerings is a chilling tale of the latter kind of house.
An aged brother and sister by the sir name of Allardyce have a summerhouse to rent. Ben and Marian Rolfe, along with their little boy and elderly aunt, lease the house from these strange siblings. The deal seems too good to be true. The house has more rooms than they can count. There is a swimming pool and beach beside a lake. But they didn’t know about the “extra charges” – their hidden essence pays for these hidden fees! However, they did know about what they presumed to be the one and only catch – the elderly Allardyce mother would remain in the house throughout the Rolfe’s stay. Oh but she would be no trouble at all! She would recluse herself to an attic bedroom in a wing of the house. The Rolfes might never even see her! All they had to do was leave a tray of food outside her closed bedroom door three times a day. They accept these terms and their chilling and suspenseful tale begins. What does this elderly mother look like? The renters never see her. But in the end, Marian Rolfe will “experience” her. Or perhaps the whole Rolfe family will share this experience. I guess this depends on the reader’s interpretation concerning the nature of the old mother.
The movie and book differ only somewhat. They have slightly different endings; two distinct paths, both equally compelling and enigmatic. However the final resolution remains the same; both paths find their way to the same place.
I highly recommend both the book and the film. Nevertheless, the book is better. It just might be my favorite piece of haunted house literature. Maybe. It’s difficult to single out the “best from the rest,” but it is certainly one of the leaders of the pack!