Part of the recommended reading list in Stephen King's Danse Macabre, this slim first novel Burnt Offerings occupies part of that territory of early '70s horror bestsellers mostly forgotten today, ironically because of King's own impact on the field (comparisons to other then-current classics The Other, The Exorcist, and Rosemary's Baby on paperback cover: check). Robert Marasco's lifelong output was very small, although his only play, Child's Play, was a big Tony Award-winning Broadway hit in 1970, and it sounds pretty appropriately macabre. He wrote only one other novel, Parlor Games. If you think I'm setting up a forgotten classic... I'm not. Alas.
Burnt Offerings concerns the Rolfe family after they rent a lovely big house in Long Island to escape the summer in Queens, and all the muted, allusive horrors they face after. I suppose they should have been clued in when the mansion rents for a measly $900 for the entire season. As a bonus, the renters, brother and sister Allardyce, reveal that their elderly mother will reside, unseen, in an upstairs room the whole time the Rolfes are there and all they have to do is provide her meals; another warning bell. So soon come the subtle terrors, the ambiguous chills, the inexplicable accidents, as the atmosphere darkens and the house - or is it Mrs. Allardyce? - begins to wield some unearthly power over the family. You know how that goes, dedicated follower of horror fiction. Caretakers in this type of work never seem to make out well, do they? And they don't.
King has stated its influence on The Shining, which is probably clear from that simple description. I read it in 1994 during what was my last real heavy-duty jag of horror-fiction reading until I began this blog. So I dug out an old notebook from then in which I wrote about various books and movies and lo and behold, while I'd written down that I'd actually read Burnt Offerings, it seems I didn't write anything about it. Not a good sign. But I can recall my impression pretty well, and that is, despite some glowing reviews on Amazon, where it gets called a "seminal horror novel," I was underwhelmed by its subtlety and felt it promised more than delivered, that its final reveal simply wasn't that scary or effective (I wasn't very taken with the movie version either, despite the quite astonishing cast of Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, and Bette Davis). Probably I was spoiled because around the same time I was reading Ligotti's Grimscribe, Leiber's Our Lady of Darkness, Machen's "The Great God Pan," and Jackson's Haunting of Hill House; what mostly-forgotten novel could hold up to that classic line-up?