Saturday, September 25, 2010

Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco (1973): Burning Down the House

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?

Robert Marasco (1936 - 1998)

17 comments:

Tim Mayer said...

The best comment I heard on the movie was a friend. He couldn't understand the title because "there wasn't one match lit in the entire movie!"

Jack Veasey said...

I read the novel when it first came out. Obviously, I was much younger then, and maybe that explains why I was totally caught up in it. When I saw the movie in the theater, it was a big comedown from the novel, and I was especially annoyed by the heavy-handed device of the sinister hearse driver. Now I find the movie amusingly campy (though the scene where we hear Bette Davis's arm snap does get me every time). What a cast, indeed! Eileen Heckart is in it, too. Dan Curtis, creator of "Dark Shadows," directed, abd it's a film in the same style as that show and "Trilogy of Terror" -- subtle it isn't, but it's fun if you don't take it too seriously. Don't know what I'd think of the book if I read it now.

Will Errickson said...

I think that's what I found disappointing about the movie: Curtis's style made it seem less like a feature film and more like a TV movie. I did like the 'raging pool' sequence however, and the ending was unexpectedly bloody.

Will Errickson said...

Tim, I thought about subtitling this post "Burning Down the House" but then I recalled nothing of the kind happened!

Imola said...

Nice to have found you!

Woodside Skulk said...

That's disappointing! I began this book about 4-5 months ago but wasn't drawn in and put it down after about a chapter or so. Not an infrequent thing with me as I find that some books "find their time" to be read with proper eyes/mind state. I still have this book near the top of a pile of horror books "to read", in light of what you've said, I guess it'll be reshuffled again, this time less prominently.
It is King's selection on the "core list" of the Jones Newman Horror: 100 Best Books list (1988).

Woodside Skulk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Woodside Skulk said...

Not seen the film, but usually love Dan Curtis' total '70s style. However, as far as "TV movie" style goes, I can see you're coming from, Will, it would be typical of Curtis, knowing his background in TV & films for TV.
As for Dan Curtis, the best things he did were the Kolchak: The Night Stalker series of TV movies and shows and the Jack Palance TV adaptations of "Dracula" & "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde". Although Palance can be hammy at times, I can watch those two endlessly. Very moody and atmospheric, for TV movies, the same could be said of Kolchak, too.

Will Errickson said...

You know, I believe I read Burnt Offerings not because it was in Danse Macabre, but because it was in the 100 Best Books, which I was into in '94. All coming back to me. I have seen the Palance version of Dracula--Matheson wrote the screenplay, I believe--but the version I prefer is the BBC-TV one from '77 with Louis Jordan; my header pic is from it.

Woodside Skulk said...

I'll have to check that out. Is it on DVD?

Will Errickson said...

Yeah, I got it from Netflix.

Luis said...

The cover for the book states that it's better than Rosemary's Baby, The Other and The Exorcist! High praise indeed, but I believe a bit exaggerated. I do like the cover, however, with the face on the knob.

KentAllard said...

I read this a million or so years ago, but I do seem to have fond memories of it. You make a good point, though: not too many books would hold up well if dumped in a lot with Lieber/Ligotti/Jackson.

roarvis said...

I've seen the film recently and thought it was very effective and disturbing, with a genuinely shocking ending. There are campy moments here and there, but I think you'll find that in any 70s movie (even The Shining).

The house used in the film was also used for the exterior of the funeral home in Phantasm.

Robert H. said...

With the recent housing crisis, I'm surprised that none of the cable channels or studios have fast-tracked this to remake status. It's also worth searching the play and/or film version of CHILD'S PLAY, as it can be seen as horror for teachers.

John Scoleri said...

In many ways I thought William F. Nolan's screenplay adaptation actually improved upon the novel.

But let's face it, what makes the movie terrifying is the chauffeur portrayed by frightening character actor Anthony James (The Teacher, Unforgiven). He's an accomplished painter these days.

Also worth noting is the house from Burnt Offerings (also used as Morningside Mortuary in the original Phantasm) is the Dunsmier Estate in Oakland, California. It's worth taking the tour if you're in the area (http://www.dunsmuir.org/).

John Fay said...

Interestingly, the handyman in Burt... was played by Dub Taylor(I think), who I pictured as Watson from the Shining(Book) who was totally ruined in Kubrick's film...