“Burnt Offerings” by Robert Marasco

“Burnt Offerings” is nineteen-seventies classic horror. It’s not in a hurry, It’s not looking for the quick spike of fear that comes from slash-and-splash action. It’s a slow burn read designed to build the kind of terror that comes from extended exposure to a threat you can’t name, that you may even blame yourself for and which you can’t escape.

Marasco takes a relatively normal domestic “What if?”, adds an element of the supernatural and then unfolds events with dreadful implacability, leaving me feeling like I was watching flies struggling in the web of a spider that I hadn’t yet seen. The “What if?” is: what if you had chance to have your dream house but the price was putting your marriage under strain and leaving you with no energy left over to do anything else? Would you pay the price? Would it be worth it? Could you NOT pay the price once you’ve started?

I suspect that, if this were being converted to a movie today, there would be a rush to get the young family to the haunted house so bad things could start to happen before people lose interest. Marasco goes a different route. He makes the oppression of living in a crowded, noisy apartment block in Queens in the summer heat and humidity come alive. He gives us time to look at wife and husband and to see how they are alone and apart. This achieves two things: it makes the decisions each of them makes later more believable and it lays the foundation for believing that what befalls them is, somehow, their own fault.

When we finally get to the huge, remote house in up-State New York that the couple is thinking of renting for the summer, there is a strong sense of threat being masked in the same way that a spicy sauce is used to hide the tainted meat it covers. The masking is done partly by the weirdly charismatic Alerdices, who own the house but the couple themselves actively collude in not seeing anything wrong.

As the reader, hearing the Alerdices say that the house will be rented to “The right people'” felt like a doom or a curse, as if they were identifying “the right people” the same way that a predator uses the barely-there-but-bound-to-get-worse lameness to mark one of the herd as prey.

To me, the rental house seems a twist on the fairy tale gingerbread house: part lure, part trap. The Alerdices, brother and sister, seem at first to be the wicked witch, yet something speaks to priest or acolyte which opens the question of who or what is being worshipped.

Yet the Alerdices do not force the house on this couple. The wife lusts after it, not just blind but antagonistic to any suggestion of a problem. The husband senses the taint of something rotten beneath the surface but will not stand behind his judgement. If the house is a trap then these two have chosen to ensnare themselves. This self-ensnarement provides an element of guilt that will make them distrust themselves and each other and which made me less sympathetic to them.

As time goes by and various spooky, tension-inducing things happen, I found myself starting to dislike both the husband and the wife. They were never particularly engaging but I could feel the best parts of them leaching away like topsoil in a rainstorm, as they came under the influence of the house. I think the power of Marasco’s writing is shown by how my perceptions as the reader where manipulated, letting me slide from being neutral about this couple at the start of the novel to experiencing a kind of grim schadenfreude-driven satisfaction at what happens to them at the end.

I won’t give away what happens. The ending was not a surprise but that amplified rather than reduce the level of horror.

I listened to the audiobook, read by R.C Bray, who I always think of as having a “Joe Friday” voice although his range is much broader than that. He’s the perfect choice for this low key but relentless horror story.

Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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