Saturday, May 26, 2012

Burnt Offerings By Robert Marasco

Burnt Offerings
By Robert Marasco
Copyright 1973

Robert Marasco, a high school teacher in New York wrote a play over the course of two summer breaks, had it open on Broadway, and saw it nominated for a Tony in 1970 for Best New Play, and penned a novel in 1973 that was well received and made into a movie. Yet, he never really followed up on either. That’s too bad because Burnt Offerings is a good novel that scared me as a kid and is still satisfying to read as an adult.

Marian and Ben Rolfe are New York City dwellers. He is a teacher and she a housewife who makes it her business to keep a meticulous home. They and their son, David, reside in a small apartment in Queens. The neighbors are noisy, the streets are noisy, and their quarters cramped. Marian longs for a little space and quiet over the summer break from school.

She finds an ad for an upstate rental at a reasonable price “for the right kind of people.” Ben, eying their finances, is reluctant to rent anything but agrees to accompany her to look at the place.

When they arrive, they are astounded to find, not a cabin or small house, but a huge mansion on a sprawling beachfront lot. The home is in poor, but serviceable repair. The owners, Roz Allerdyce and her brother, Arnold, immediately take a liking to Marian. The Rolfes, it seems, are the “right kind of people,” and the Allerdyces offer them the entire estate for $900 for the summer.

There are two little catches. First, the Allerdyces want Marian to “care for the place.” It is structurally sound, but needs a good cleaning – a task that appeals to Marian. Second, three times a day, they must carry a meal tray to the Allerdyces’ mother “Our Darling!” who resides in a room on the top floor. Mother will be no trouble they assure the Rolfes and they probably won’t even see her.

Ben sees the responsibility of caring for an old woman as a deal breaker, but Marian has her heart set on it and talks him into it. The Rolfes, along with Ben’s aunt Elizabeth, move into the estate the first week of July. The Allerdyces are already gone, leaving a note with some contact numbers and instructions.

Marian makes a point of preparing food for mother Allerdyce upon their arrival. She carries it up to the room and sets it on the table. Nearby, she sees a large collection of photos. Some are recent; others are daguerreotypes. Many people populate the photos, but they have one common trait: their faces are devoid of emotion.

She is fascinated by the ornate door that leads to the old woman’s room with its swirled patterns. She knocks on the door and tries to introduce herself. Nothing comes from the room except a humming noise which she assumes is an air conditioner.

After seeing to Mrs. Allerdyce, Marian starts cleaning, finding silver and gold furnishings and antiques all over the house in need of elbow grease. The house has become her new love.

Later that night, Ben wants to make love. Marian is inexplicably not in the mood. At first, she tries to put him off, but eventually yields. Instead of pleasurable, she finds it barely tolerable and painful. She is troubled by these feelings because she and Ben have always had a healthy sex life.

Meanwhile, Ben tries to make the pool serviceable. It’s in poor repair. He starts the filter and it makes slow work of cleaning the water. After a few days, he deems it clean enough to swim in. Ben and David jump in while Aunt Elizabeth sits with a martini in hand under an umbrella and looks on. Marian has locked herself in the upstairs room, spending time with Mrs. Allerdyce’s photographs which have become intensely interesting to her.

While he’s in the pool, Ben finds an old pair of eyeglasses on the bottom. One of the lenses has a small, round hole through the middle. He places them on the edge of the pool.

Ben and David start playing and Ben begins to throw David into the air with David splashing back into the water. At first, the game is fun, but then it gets too rough for David. He begs his dad to stop throwing him, but he won’t. Finally, David claws at his dad’s eyes and frees himself. Aunt Elizabeth is horrified at Ben’s behavior. Snapped back to reality, Ben is horrified by his own behavior.

Ben is deeply troubled by the events at the pool. He is at a loss to explain them. He can’t even remember them. David recovers his wits quickly enough, but the entire event takes something out of the previous spunky Elizabeth, who finds herself growing more and more tired with each passing day.

A few nights later, Ben goes back out to the pool. After finishing with Mrs. Allerdyce’s needs, Marian joins him and tries to bridge the growing distance between them. Both notice that the pool is a lovely shade of blue now. Ben reasons that the filter must have kicked into overdrive and removed the sludge from the sides that were dingy brown. Marian wonders how the pavers all straightened themselves and who repaired the cracks.

Ben once again tries to entice Marian. He strips naked and jumps into the pool and invites her to do the same. Reluctantly she strips and gets in, but she feels embarrassed. Every time she looks at the house, she feels ashamed. She rebuffs Ben again, puts on her robe, and heads for the house and the comfort of Mrs. Allerdyce’s sitting room.

That night Ben awakens late at night and finds that Marian has finally returned from the upstairs sitting room and come to bed. He ventures out into the hallway and notices that David’s door is closed which is odd because he never sleeps with a closed door. As he approaches the door, he smells gas. The door is jammed. He finally forces his way into the room and gets David out.

Ben brings David to their room and awakens Marian. He is alive and breathing, but groggy. Marian calls the doctor on the list provided by Roz Allerdyce. The doctor assures her natural gas poisoning is either fatal or it isn’t and if he’s not dead, he’ll be fine. Ben returns to the room and finds the gas valve on the old fashioned room heater is open.

The next morning, Ben decides to prune the brush back from the driveway and sets off with the shears. Marian confronts Aunt Elizabeth about David’s room. She admits she was in the room, just to put a blanket on him. Marian presses her on whether or not she fooled with the heater. Elizabeth can’t remember. Marian presses her harder, all but accusing her of nearly killing her son. Elizabeth, horribly distraught and terribly tired, returns to her room and her bed.

Meanwhile, Ben is battling the brush. As he works in the sun, he inexplicably recalls a scene from when he was a kid. A neighbor had died and a hearse pulled up to the house to claim the body. He recalls the deep rumbling of the engine and can’t help but remember the sound of the Allerdyce’s old Packard. He begins working harder and harder. As he makes his way through the brush, he hears the deep rumble of an old flathead motor and feels his knee come up against a bumper. He blacks out.

He finally comes out of his somnolence walking back to the house. He looks at his watch and notices that he’s lost two hours. The last thing he recalls is the cold chrome against his knee.

He’s angry at Marian when he hears about her confrontation with Elizabeth. Marian promises to apologize when she gets done cleaning some newly unearthed pieces of silver she's found. While Marian is preoccupied with cleaning, Ben goes up to check on Elizabeth. The lady, who had always defied her natural age of 74, now looks old and tired. She claims she doesn’t have the energy to get out of bed.

The Rolfe marriage is now completely asunder. Marian spends more and more time in the sitting room, entranced by the ornate door and the photos on the bureau. She has lied to Ben about having seen Mrs. Allerdyce and that troubles her briefly before she dismisses the unpleasant feelings. She also dismisses from her mind any guilt she feels about her fight with Aunt Elizabeth. The sitting room provides her with comfort and solace.

There is no comfort or solace for Ben. He’d planned to work on his courses for the next school year. But the texts and his notes sit on his desk, ignored. His wife is alien to him. His aunt has become a shade of her former self. David is distant from him after the incident at the pool.

He’s starting to realize that this house and its environs are not good for him or his family. He mentions the possibility of leaving to Marian. Marian is appalled. She has a responsibility to Mrs. Allerdyce she won’t yield. In her own mind, giving up the house is something she cannot do.

The next morning, Elizabeth tries to get out of bed and finds herself too weak. She has sharp pains in her chest. Ben comes into the room to check on her and finds her barely alive. A doctor is summoned, but before he can arrive, Elizabeth dies.

Ben and David return to the city to arrange for Elizabeth’s funeral. Marian refuses to go, claiming she must take care of Mrs. Allerdyce. After the conversation ends in anger, Marian goes to the greenhouse to find the plants have really taken off after Elizabeth’s death. She returns to the sitting room to find a picture of Elizabeth has joined the other photos. Just like the other subjects, her face is expressionless. Marian also notices that her hair has gone completely gray over the course of the month they’ve spent at the Allerdyce estate.

Ben and David return. Marian decides she is going to make one last attempt to bridge the gulf between her and Ben by preparing the family a nice dinner. Ben’s not in the mood to eat. He asks Marian if she can give up the house if it means keeping her family. Marian is horrified at having to choose. She begs Ben not to force her to choose because she is afraid of the choice she will make. Ben’s heard all he needs to hear.

The next day, he resolves to leave. He puts David in the car and starts out. Marian is upstairs, consoling herself in the sitting room. Ben and David get a few yards down the driveway when they find the brush to be impenetrable. Ben tries to ram his way through, but the brush won’t yield. He feels vines making their way into the car to tangle his feet and his hands. His mind snaps. He hears Marian come to the car and push him out of the way. She drives them back to the house.

Ben lapses into a catatonic state. He won’t communicate at all. David is dazed as well. For a week, Marian tries to reach Ben without success.

One afternoon, The Allerdyce’s caretaker stops by. He is pleased with how the house is coming along. Marian tells him of Elizabeth’s death and Ben’s catatonia. He’s just resting, the old caretaker assures her. Marian pleads with him to tell her what to do. He tells her to go on doing what she’s been doing. He tells her that she’s made a choice. She’s put things into motion. He asks her if she really wants to give it all up. Marian starts to wonder if it was all really worth it.

One day, she decides to bring Ben down to the pool. She seats him under an umbrella. David is prepared for a swim. She leaves the two alone. David decides that maybe if he can show his dad how he’s learned to swim, his dad will snap out of his fugue. He plunges into the pool’s deep end and surfaces. He finds he’s not quite the swimmer he thought he was. Waves force him under. He struggles to keep his head above water, but the water has a will of its own and he soon succumbs to it.

Ben struggles to free himself of his trance. He manages to rise under his own power, he takes a step and then falls. His head strikes the pavement. Blood begins to flow from his eyes. He slowly dies.

Marian sees the scene unfold from the house. She tries to rush to the pool, but the door is jammed. She runs frantically through the house and tries to find a way to get to her husband and son. All egresses are blocked.

There’s nothing left for her now. She made her choice whether she knew it or not. She puts on a nice sun dress and climbs to the sitting room. There, she finds Ben and David’s pictures have joined the gallery. Her hair has turned white.

She begins to pound on the ornate door. She tells Mrs. Allerdyce she’s given all she has to give. There’s nothing left. She wants to know what it was all for. She hears a quiet click and the vault like door swings open. Inside, she sees an ancient woman, obscured by shadows. She advances on the wraithlike figure. She begins to hear the voices of Roz and Arnold Allerdyce. “Our mother. . . Our Darling. . .Restored to us in all her dearness. . . Her beauty. . .Her glory. . .” Marian steps to the chair and grasps it. She can feel the hum now. She can feel it in her and she can feel it coursing through her into the house. Behind her, she hears the sound of a vault door closing.

The Allerdyce’s appear in the living room. “In silent reverence,” Marasco narrates, “they tour the restored home through all of the restored rooms of their mother’s house, which had never looked so rich and shining and perfect.” Roz insists that their caretaker photograph the home and the grounds. They place the photo on the wall above all the others taken of the home through the decades. They celebrate.

This novel was a formative book in my life. It is the first adult novel I can recall reading and, while I’d always enjoyed scary movies and scary stories, it set me on a path of lifelong pursuit of horror novels. I’d not rank it as a great book, but I sure do enjoy reading it and must have read it five or six times as a kid growing up.

Compared to other popular horror of its time (of which there was very little) it’s not a great book. It doesn’t match The Exorcist in its depth. It has not the character development and social relevance of Rosemary’s Baby. It’s character development is light and its plot linear. But, it’s a fun story and easy to read.

It does have some glaring flaws and omissions. The glasses found in the pool seemed to be an important clue as to the nature of the house. But they never appear in the story again. Providing some motivation or explanation as to why Aunt Elizabeth ventured into David’s room would have helped that part of the story. We never learn if it was Elizabeth, guided by the spirit of the house, who turned on the gas, or if the house did it itself in the process of being reborn. The scene was purely incidental and only served to set up the short conflict between Marian and Elizabeth. It impacted David not at all.

Nothing impacted David and no explanation is provided. His mother is going gray at a rapid rate and has developed an obsession that makes her neglect him. He doesn’t seem to care. His dad is going nuts. He doesn’t seem to care. His beloved aunt dies. He doesn’t care. Or so it would seem. The not caring might have been a clue unto itself, but Marasco gave us no reason to believe that it was a clue. We see the story from Marian’s point of view, Ben’s point of view, and Elizabeth’s point of view. Marasco never lets us into David’s head. It would seem to be a case of character neglect.

There is a subtext, thinly veiled, about materialism. Marian loves the gold, the silver, and the expanse of the mansion and its grandeur. On several occasions she is asked to choose between her family or these beautiful things. While she always cops to the responsibility to the old lady in the attic, she chooses her new possessions, right up until the end when she loses her family. Even when she realizes the terrible choice she’s made, she must find out what it was all for.

Stephen King does not deny that the novel influenced him when he wrote The Shining which contains similar circumstances. Although it does not appear in the Kubrick movie, Jack Torrance develops an obsession with a scrap book he finds in the hotel’s cellar. He comes to love and respect the hotel. The difference is, Jack succumbs to an evil unwillingly. He was offered no stark choices like Marian Rolfe. He was seduced. For Marian, the house filled a void in her life and filling that void became the obsession.

The book was made into a hit movie that starred Oliver Reed, Karen Black, and Bette Davis. The scene with the hearse driver, which is scarcely mentioned in the novel, became iconic in its own way. It terrified me as a child. My wife, who generally doesn’t like horror, recalls seeing that particular scene and having nightmares. If you mention the movie to casual fans of horror, they can recall that hearse driver with the evil grin and eyes hiding behind mirrored lenses.

Marasco followed up with another novel called Parlor Games in 1979. I have never seen it although there are a few copies available on Amazon. It netted just one, two sentence review on Amazon and the reviewer gave it five stars.

With a hit play and a decent novel under his belt, it seems that the late Robert Marasco (he died of lung cancer in 1998) was an underachiever. Like Frank DeFellita, he seemed to have a promising writing career that could have blossomed with honing his craft on new projects. But, unfortunately, it never developed.

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