Review of Burnt Offerings – The Novel

burntofferingsHappy 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 BurntOfferingsAgainrent. 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!


Review of Burnt Offerings

Burnt offerings Hearse DriverI remember seeing Burnt Offerings on television when I was about ten years old. Certain images from the movie stayed with me all these years. One such image is the movie’s prominent haunting figure – a creepy looking hearse driver. His clothes, cap and even his glasses, are black; the appropriate color for a funeral. However, he dons an inappropriate smile, as if death is something delightful. Was he a ghost? Was he death itself? I couldn’t remember. Then there is the long row of photographs in the attic. Some sepia toned, some in modern color. Who were these people in the photos?

Burnt Offerings Photos

There are also certain scenes that replayed in mind from time to time. Our old friend the hearse driver bangs at the chamber door, frightening a dying old lady. He barges through the door with a coffin and his signature creepy smile.

Burnt offerings Betty


I also remembered layers of bricks breaking away from the house; the house shedding them the way a snake sheds its skin.


Yes sir, I thought it was quite the movie back in 1981. But would I feel the same way about this film as an adult? I wanted to find out. So I watched this on last Sunday night. I was not disappointed. It was a good film when I was ten years old and it remains a good film at the ripe, young age of forty-four!

What I like most about the film is the overall theme. My favorite type of haunted house movie involves a house with a mind of its own; a house that acts independently of or in equal collusion with any spirits that may haunt it. Burnt Offerings “offers” viewers such a house. In return it asks for only one simple thing – the life force of the current occupants. Of course, we who sit safely in our homes cry out “it’s a deal!” Because we love such things! And the house benefits as well – it rejuvenates.

Oh don’t get all sour cause I’m treading into spoiler land! Any astute viewer should figure this out within the first thirty minutes of the film.

Ben and Marian Rolf (Oliver Reed and Karen Black), along with their twelve year burnt_offeringsold son David (Lee Montgomery – hey, did you know this kid played in a movie about a boy who befriends a pack of killer rats? Well now you do – The movie is Ben) and Ben’s elderly aunt (Bette Davis!) lease a house for the duration of the summer. The rent was just too cheap to pass up. But on the first day, the elderly brother and sister that own the house (played by Eileen Heckart and Burgess Meredith) explain the main catch – they will have to care for their elderly mother that lives in the attic. Oh but she’s not a bother, they say. She never comes out of her room and all that she would need is tray with a meal placed beside her door at the appropriate meal times.

This is one of those films that have many moments that are subject to interpretation. I still don’t know the identity or composition of that scary hearse driver dude. And there is something about that brother and sister, The Allardyces, that will have viewers wondering. Oh and the ending, what did it mean when he opened #$% $*$* and saw &*^^ as the *^ !@#$% and then ended up being &*&*# &  out  the *#%$@# ??   (Yeah, I’m not going to totally spoil this film for ya, so ya have to bear with the font symbols.)

Speaking of the Allardyces, Burgess Meredith has a brief but commanding role. He is awesome!

This film is based on the 1973 novel of the same name, written by Robert Morasco. I haven’t read it, but I’m betting the book is mighty darn good as well. I will read it, but for now, I will just live with the experience of this movie. It’s a pretty good experience after all!