Burnt Offerings (1973) by Robert Marasco

Burnt Offerings
Burnt Offerings
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Burnt Offerings (1973) by Robert Marasco is a quirky novel, full of things that might be interpreted as flaws: An ambiguous malevolent force, a lack of characterization, an element of tonal dissonance, and a series of loose ends. But Marasco is an alchemist who transforms this dross into literary gold. Or at least silver. While not as riveting as other modern horror classics like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, Burnt Offerings leverages potential missteps to cast an enduring spell, one that I’ve been under since first reading it in the 90s.

Tormented by the noise and discomfort of their Queens apartment, housewife Marian Rolfe persuades her husband, Ben, that their family must escape the imminent summer heat by renting a house in the country. Ben, a high school English teacher, is reluctant for financial reasons; his earnings are moderate at best and Marian spends all of their disposable income on bibelots and old furniture. But when the eccentric siblings, Roz and Arnold (aka “Brother”) Allardyce offer them a run-down estate filled with priceless antiques for an obscenely low price, he is skeptical and assumes that there must be a catch. And there is. Mrs. Allardyce, the siblings’ 85 year old mother, will remain in the home, sequestered in her bed chamber. Her needs are minimal–a tray of food left in her sitting room three times a day. Marian readily agrees to the responsibility and convinces Ben, who has a bad feeling about the whole thing, to snap up this amazing deal before someone else does. So with their son, David, and Ben’s aunt, Elizabeth, they begin their vacation in the Allardyce mansion where things quickly go south. Marian’s love of cleaning becomes an all-consuming obsession; Ben’s worst instincts emerge; and Aunt’s Elizabeth’s good health rapidly declines. Yet with each new catastrophe, the condition of the house improves, its paint brightening, plants flourishing, and furniture fixed. It’s as if their suffering were bringing the estate back to life. Marian intuits the secret of the house and her central role in its supernatural revitalization. Will she give it up to save her family? 

What is it exactly that threatens the Rolfe family? Marasco doesn’t comfort his readers with easy answers and, indeed, what makes Burnt Offerings so special is the enigmatic nature of its motivating evil. It isn’t a haunted house story, with unquiet spirits stalking the halls. Nor was the estate built on an Indian burial ground. A construction error like that would have explained everything, but the IBG trope didn’t emerge until later in the decade. Marasco further complicates the riddle and ratchets up the dread by suggesting that the house has no definitive temporal or even spatial coordinates. With its bay windows and gothic gables, it appears to be Victorian, which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t that long ago. And yet Roz and Brother, the latest generation of the house’s founding family, can’t say when it was built. According to them, “it’s always been here,” witnessing “centuries.” But how can it be, as they say, “practically immortal”  when America is such a young country? Our history isn’t long enough to be untraceable or forgotten (though we try). Even if a colonial structure–say, one of its many vaunted sub-basements–was expanded upon to create the Allardyce mansion, that seed of the estate would date to the early 17th century and not the beginning of time. 

Lost in time, the house is also lost in space, popping in and out of existence like Schrodinger’s cat. With Roz’s directions, the Rolfe’s locate Seventeen Shore Road with surprising ease; and, later, Ben routinely travels to and from town without trouble. However, the local doctor, who’s lived in the area for years, can’t find the estate and suggests that the address doesn’t exist. This disappearance becomes a serious narrative problem when Aunt Elizabeth dies. Her death threatens Marian’s ability to remain in the house because a normal family–and she is still clinging with white knuckles to the pretense of normality–can’t spend the summer with a rotting corpse. Yet, if she leaves, the story falls apart. Marasco solves the problem by jumping ahead. We are told, after the fact, that the doctor–who seems to have found his way after all–pronounced the death and the undertakers removed the body. The house materializes just long enough to save the plot. On Marasco’s part, I don’t know if this is a failure of craft or a stroke of genius, but these jarring shifts in the narrative feel right for the theme. 

The house’s ability to blink in and out of reality is in keeping with the duality of its animating power, which seems to be some kind of God. Marasco offers no theology, no local superstition overheard in town, to explain what it is and how it works. Does it originate from the soil or the roof timbers, and what is the extent of its reach? The one thing I know with certainty is that it’s an almost comical mixture of the transcendent and trivial. The blinding whiteness behind Mrs. Allardyce’s door is the annihilating force of death–strongly reminiscent of the white arctic mists in Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Before this god of obliteration–or “Mother” as the Allardyce siblings lovingly call it– can fully possess Marian, it must erase her human qualities, eradicating her familial affections and elevating her above earthly relationships. And yet for all its transcendence, Mother, like Marian herself, adores Spode and Meissen dishware. As antique collectors, both are obsessed with the bric-a-brac of the material world, experiencing fulfillment through the accumulation of dusty physical objects. Other novels may have their possessing powers, but none so original and contradictory as Mrs. Allardyce, a divinity to be sure but also a hoarder, who lives for Chippendale mirrors. 

Throughout Burnt Offerings, Marasco combines unusual qualities to create something compelling. Evident in “Mother,” this talent is also on display in his rendering of the characters and their off-kilter family unit. Marasco provides very little background on Ben and Marion and no details on how they got together. All we know is that Ben’s parents are dead. Since he’s in his early 30s, this tragedy seems worthy of a little elaboration, but none is forthcoming. Did Aunt Elizabeth raise him, and is that why he’s so invested in her? Ben’s under pressure from his superiors to bolster his teaching credentials with a masters degree. But is he even remotely stimulated by literature, his field of study? What would he rather be doing? Why is he disappointed with his life and what does he want out of it? Marian is even more of an enigma. Who marries a teacher and then expects a large allowance for antiques and a rental house two months out of the year? More significantly, what kind of a woman wants to take her husband’s aunt on vacation? So many questions, none of which are answered. The only recognizable character here is David, a standard-issue Gen X kid, whose parents are so wrapped up in their own shit that they don’t notice him. Far from being a weakness in the novel, these massive gaps in characterization are one of its greatest strengths. Long after closing the book, I am still wondering about these characters, speculating about their motives and histories, writing a paragraph composed almost entirely of questions.  

If Marasco leverages thinly drawn characters, he also uses tonally dissonant scenes and loose ends to great advantage. I love the dark, almost gothic horror of the chauffeur-cum-mortician who plagues Ben, but let’s face it–he seems to have wandered in from another book. His vintage lurking and casket-bearing creepiness are at odds with the contemporary feel of the Rolfe family. That said, the collision between these differing aesthetics is memorable in the best possible way–As a former funeral director, I’ve thought about it many times over the years. I’ve also contemplated the mystery of Mrs. Allardyce’s picture collection. All of her victims have blank or terrified expressions, and they appear, standing or sitting, before unidentifiable backgrounds. When, where, and by whom were these photographs taken? And how do you explain the subjects who seem to have been photographed before the invention of photography? I can’t wrap my mind around this but trying is half the fun. The broken glasses are another loose end that I can’t stop picking. After finding them at the bottom of the pool, Ben ruminates on the cause of the hole in the lens, and you assume that he will eventually discover the story behind it. Was a man shot while sunbathing? Struck with a gardening implement? And more importantly, what is the connection between Ben’s handling of the glasses and his subsequent attack on David? Was he momentarily possessed by someone involved in this hypothetical poolside murder? 

Don’t get me started on Burnt Offerings because, if this review hasn’t made it obvious, I could ask questions forever. Whether they are signs of clumsiness or artistic virtuosity, the book’s glaring lacunae invite endless speculation. I’m still spinning theories. And that’s what we want right?–books that keep us guessing, engaged, and afraid long after we’ve read them.


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