For many years, I marveled at what appeared to be a genuine dearth of quality haunted house novels. There are a number of undeniable classics, such as Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror (1977), Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), and Richard Matheson’s Hell House (1971), but beyond these it becomes much harder to find good examples.
It turns out that there are, however, plenty of amazing haunted house tales; they’ve been lurking, just out of sight, for years, lost and largely forgotten like the houses they describe. My friends at Valancourt Books have been leading the charge in reprinting some amazing work, such as Michael McDowell’s The Elementals (1981), Jack Cady’s The Well (1980), and Archie Roy’s Devil in the Darkness (1973), the latter of which I wrote an introduction for!
But my reading habits are fickle, and for some reason I put off investigating another classic released by Valancourt back in 2015, Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings (1973).
I’ve taken a stab at classifying haunted house stories before, particularly in the way they end, as there appear to be only so many ways that events can play out (though the joy is in the details which lead to that end). Burnt Offerings has made me rethink and add to the classification.
One type of story is what we could call the “hostile house” story. A house which is simply hostile to anyone who tries to live inside of it, and inevitably chases out those who are within. The Amityville Horror and The Elementals are stories like this.
A second class of story is the “house with a secret.” The haunting is the result of some horrible event that has cast its shadow on the premises. In the end, the secret is revealed — which may or may not end the evil. Devil in the Darkness and Hell House are stories of this form.
Burnt Offerings made me realize that there is a third distinct class of story: the “hungry house.” A house that actively seeks victims to consume. The Haunting of Hill House and The Shining are exemplary examples of this form, but somehow it never really clicked with me until I read Burnt Offerings.
The novel features the Rolfe family, Ben and Marian and their son David. Living in a stifling apartment in Queens, they decide to get away for the summer to a home in the country. Browsing through the newspaper, Marian finds an offer that seems too good to possibly be true: an entire mansion for rent in upstate New York for the entire season, for a ridiculously good price. The only catch given by the Allardyce family renting the home: the renters must leave food for the elderly senior Mrs. Allardyce, who stays secluded in her room in a remote wing, behind an intricately carved door.
Though Ben is suspicious, Marian convinces him that the deal is too good to pass up, and they move in. And at first, it seems like it will be the perfect summer. Marian takes care of leaving food for Mrs. Allardyce and picking up the dishes, while Ben works on prepping his school syllabus for the next semester and David enjoys the pool and the extensive mansion grounds.
But as the season progresses, uncertainty sets in and unsettling events begin to happen. Marian finds herself increasingly obsessed with the house, and Ben finds himself seeing things that cannot possibly exist. The mansion itself seems to be changing the longer they live there. And, through it all, none of them ever see Mrs. Allardyce in person; she remains hidden in her room, behind the curiously carved door.
What is happening to the house, and to them? And what does the Allardyce family want with them in the end? And will they survive it?
Burnt Offerings is a rather unconventional haunted house story. You won’t find the typical ghosts or demons here, and the haunting is rather subtle… until the very end.
This is a very good horror novel, as can be seen just from the influence it had on the field. It was evidently an inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining, and it was itself made into a movie in 1976 which was itself positively reviewed (though I have yet to see it). Personally, I would say it is not my favorite haunted house novel of all time, but it is undeniably strange and effective and worth reading by anyone interested in the subject, or the history of horror.
It was, sadly, only one of two novels written by Robert Marasco, and evidently his only horror novel. It was not his only fiction with dark subject matter, however, as he also wrote the play Child’s Play, which was first performed in 1970 and focuses on strife and violence at a Roman Catholic boarding school. It was also adapted into a movie, which was released in 1972.
It is difficult to convey the cleverness and the horror of Burnt Offerings without giving too much away; you’ll just have to read it for yourself to find out what secrets and motivations the Allardyce home holds…
PS I forgot to mention that the “hungry house” concept came from reading the introduction to the new edition, written by Stephen Graham Jones!