Burnt Offerings, Robert Marasco (1973)

With summer approaching, Ben and Marian Rolfe want to escape their stifling apartment in crowded Queens by renting a house in the country. Marian finds a listing, and they head out one Saturday to check it out. The rental turns out to be a sprawling, but faded, mansion on two hundred acres on the bay. The rent is suspiciously low, and the owners, elderly siblings Roz and Arnold Allardyce, are, as Ben puts it, weird. There’s a catch, however, to this too good to be true rental property; the Rolfe’s will have to provide meals to eighty-five-year-old Mother Allardyce, being left behind, who occupies two rooms on the uppermost floor and prefers to be left alone. Just leave a tray on her sitting room table, she’ll be fine. Marian, salivating over the house and its antiques, is more than willing to oblige. Ben, not so much.

Passive-aggressive Marian gets her way by means of the silent treatment on the drive back that extends into their evening at home. Manipulation is standard procedure for her; she employed a bit of a prick tease to get Ben to even consider a getaway in the first place. Marian is something of a neat-freak, by the way, as well as a fine antiques whore, decorating their apartment with things they don’t need, don’t have room for, and can’t afford on Ben’s schoolteacher salary. She pays for them by working temp jobs for a couple of weeks, rather than working part-time and putting money aside so they can finally move to the suburbs. For all these things and more, Marian is an unlikable bitch. But I digress.

The Rolfe’s, with eight-year-old son David and Ben’s seventy-four-year-old aunt Elizabeth in tow, take the house for two months. Marian is just enthralled, enamored of the place and all its antiques. Hepplewhite, Chippendale! Pier glass consoles and Persian rugs! Gold — gold  — serving trays! Marian practically orgasms over all the stuff, because she has pretentious airs, grand designs, and yearns to live above her station. She has taste, you see, and apparently thinks she’s a fucking Vanderbilt or Rockefeller and deserves to live this kind of life. She begins to clean and fix up the house. That’s right, a house they’re renting for two months, and she’s swanning around trying to return it to its showplace glory days, acting like they’re going to live there forever (that couldn’t be foreshadowing, could it?).

She redecorates the upstairs sitting room and starts spending an inordinate amount of time there, it’s her special, peaceful place. Needless to say, old biddy Mother Allardyce is never seen or heard from because she doesn’t exist. In fact, pretty much everything of any importance can be figured out by the book’s title and first three or four chapters. Way to not play it close to the vest or create suspense!

As for Ben, he has an incident in the pool in which he intentionally tries to hurt his son. This is verified after the fact, because it’s unclear from the writing if he got carried away playing or purposely became abusive. After that, Ben becomes remote and cold towards Marian, and begins suffering crushing, constant headaches, moments of blurred vision, and hallucinations of a black limousine, something from his childhood that he associates with death (real subtle on the symbolism).

He fears he’s having a nervous breakdown, and when he confides in Marian, she brushes it off. What’s frustrating about Ben’s character is that he knows the score. He knows the Allardyce’s are sketchy, that there’s something off about the house, that his wife is manipulative and ends up caring more about a stranger’s home than her immediate family. Problem is, he’s weak (whipped, one could argue) and always gives in. Marian always gets her way. Hell, the simple fact that they rent the house at all is preposterous, given all the strange circumstances. Had he put his foot down once in a while and forced her to sell her precious antiques, they’d never end up in this mess.

It seems the house, or whatever inhabits it, has an ability to tap into the darker, hidden desires and fears of people and bring them to the fore. Ben’s intentional harm to his son in the pool, for instance. Was he redirecting resentment and anger for his wife onto David? Then there’s the question of his sexual behavior with Marian. It’s vague. We’re not in Ben’s head, Marasco chooses to focus on Marian, but her thoughts and reactions have an air of an unreliability to them. Is she a closet prude, as Ben half-jokingly accuses? We know she gets skittish about skinny dipping and becoming intimate in the pool because — gasp! — the house is watching. Maybe he does try raping her, I can’t tell, it’s so murkily written. Maybe she perceives he does because her genitals have suddenly become as golden and revered as an Adrien Vachette snuff box.

This book is more psychological than anything, and I suppose it could be read as an allegory about the disintegration of a marriage. Marian is obsessed with things and living a life she can’t have. She’s petulant and selfish. In one maddening scene, having donned a blue hostess gown, she sets out caviar for cocktail hour on the terrace like she’s in Newport or the Hamptons. That drives home that she’s a childish adult playing dress-up in someone else’s house. She becomes proprietary of the house and everything in it, at the expense of her family. I get it, her obsession is self-destructive and the insufferable, highfalutin bitch she is deep down is surfacing, egged on by the house. That still doesn’t make me care about her, I had her pegged from the get-go.

The best chapter was the first. It felt very ’70’s, and Marasco conveyed the stifling heat, noise, claustrophobia, and tension of summer in a crowded apartment complex. However, he doesn’t commit when he needs to or when it counts, in character or plot development. He was probably too busy patting himself on the back for another five paragraphs describing a stunning, late 18th-century gold inlaid rosewood Spanish escritoire, and Marian pulling out the lemon oil to polish it (there’s no such scene, I threw that in for illustrative purposes). The author has a penchant for name dropping antique furniture makers as if we care. We don’t, we’re not Marian.

Marasco has a strange writing style. In mid-paragraph, hell, sometimes mid-sentence, he switches from showing to telling. This happens in the middle of conversations, like he couldn’t be bothered to continue them because he bored himself with what was being discussed and wanted instead to palaver for a few paragraphs about a Steuben candy dish (see, I can be pedantic, too). He also broke the rules of his world when Ben left the estate for several days without incident (overgrown sentinel shrubbery usually blocks his path). His uneventful departure wasn’t even described.

The son, David, often comes across as an afterthought. Marasco needed him for a few plot developments, but other than that, he serves no purpose and kind of disappears from the narrative. Aunt Elizabeth was initially presented as an active and spry senior, but she’s just cannon, or to be more precise, house fodder.

Let’s talk about dropped plot points, shall we? The rusted old tricycle found by David when they first went to look at the house. The boarded up, ramshackle cottage on the edge of the woods. The broken old-fashioned spectacles at the bottom of the pool found by Ben, thrown away by Marian the next morning. How ’bout it, Bob? You had great stuff to explore and incorporate and instead you focused on Marian getting her jollies playing with antiques. Screw you. Some unanswered questions:

  1. Who are the Allardyces?
  2. What’s the history of the house?
  3. What/who is Mother and what’s the hum in the bedroom?
  4. How could Ben leave so easily for the funeral and why did he return?
  5. What did Ben see in the greenhouse that made him try to flee so suddenly?
  6. Why did the house affect Ben differently?
  7. Why didn’t David age or show ill effects?

Some may say this a potboiler, a slow burn. It’s not. It’s tedious, far too long, and suffers from a languorous pace in which not a whole hell of a lot happens plot-wise. Chapters could be half the length. There’s paragraph after paragraph of descriptions about the junk in the house that gets Marian’s panties wet. Conversations between characters crawl due to numbing, half-baked dialog and repetition. This is a short story dragged out to novel length that could have worked as a one hour Twilight Zone episode if written by Serling, Beaumont, or Matheson.

SPOILER: The house rejuvenates itself by killing people. A good idea, execrably executed.

A grudging ** out of 5 because I actually finished it in spite of myself, liked the first few chapters, and the premise was interesting. A tedious and overrated psychological domestic drama masquerading as a haunted house story. I’d rather take my chances spending a weekend in the Belasco house.

 

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