The premise for Burnt Offerings is formulaic; family moves into a haunted house. Family falls apart. And as with most haunted house stories (The Grip of It springs to mind instantly) the House is merely a catalyst to some underlying issues. Like the metaphorical needle, it forces out the splinter from under the festering skin, exposing its puss-covered and bloody form for all to see. Marasco does well in executing this trope, but man, does he take a long time doing it. At one point, some 70% into the novel, with only a splash of supernatural revealed at that point, I wondered why this hadn’t been called Slow Burnt Offerings (thanks, I’m here all week. Try the fish). In truth, three quarters read more like the first act; Marion Rolf, her teacher husband Ben, and son David (an aside – my mind kept switching their names because Ben always seems like a younger person, and David designated for an older person), all live in a cramped little apartment in the city. Marion finds them a summerhouse to rent. Marion wants said summerhouse. Says it’ll be good for them (foreshadowing). Summerhouse is actually a big dilapidated house owned by two Allardyce siblings (who are probably the weirdest thing in the book and pays homage to Shirley Jackson’s Uncle Julian in We Have Always Lived in the Castle). Marion falls in love with house. Rent is cheap. Caveat – they have to look after mom Allardyce who apparently is low maintenance (foreshadowing 2). We’re then subjected to the following: Marion cleans. Marion discovers lots of antiques. Ben gets horny. Marion doesn’t want to have sex so Marion cleans. Ben gets horny, and a little mad (one can only conclude it’s a consequence of having the horn). Marion cleans some more. She notices the house is fixing itself. Ben is super horny and doesn’t notice this, presumably because his erection is blocking his view. Marion comes obsessed with preparing meals for old’ma Allardyce. Ben so horny now he pretty much sexually abuses his wife. To get over this Marion cleans. Ben hurts son. Questions his sanity. Marion’s hair gets grey so she cleans thinking this will help. It doesn’t. Ben loses his mind. Marion cleans. You get the idea.
To be honest, had I not assumed Burnt Offerings would be akin to Shirley Jackson/Michael McDowell (gothic, creepy) then I may have stopped reading it a lot sooner than I did. But I believed, due to its success (there’s also a movie too with Karen Black, Oliver Reed , Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart) that this was going to pay off. In truth, the whole Mrs Allardyce mystery was definitely the spookiest part of the book. Marion’s fixation with the carved door, beyond which is the old dear and a strange humming noise, piques enough interest to force you to continue. The pay off is largely offset by that assembled by your own imagination, which is always more scarier. You want to know if the old lady is alive or is the book going to go all Robert Bloch. You want to know if (how I wished for this) that the house consumes the lives of those within until they become part of it, and in that room was an older version of Marion! I know! She turns the chair around and boom! She’s looking at herself, all greyed hair and livers spots. Okay, she got grey hair pretty early on, but yeah, liver spots and dentures. Whether you think the payoff is worthy of the 90% build up, that’s for you to decide. But for me, there could have been more goose skinning. It gets three stars mainly for the writing, which is skilful and full of rich and believable dialogue. Marasco is a great writer, and I understand this was his only foray into the horror genre, and maybe had he continued to hone his skills in that area, there could have been something very special out there. As it is, we have Burnt Offerings, a book that really should have been a novella.