Burnt Offerings

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By Robert Marasco

All the Rolfes want is a summer escape from their sweltering four-room Queens apartment with the tone-deaf, piano-playing, downstairs neighbor and the voyeur in the building across the way.

When Marian Rolfe finds an ad for “a unique summer home. Restful, secluded . . . Pool, private beach, dock . . . ” for a “reasonable” price,  she thinks she’s found the perfect answer.

Ben Rolfe, so stressed by his job as a high school teacher that he thinks he’s headed for a nervous breakdown, is skeptical that what the owners call “reasonable” rent actually will be, but it’s worth a Saturday drive to see.

Marian falls in love on sight with the “great, rambling mass of gables and dormers and rounded bays” of the house “set on the highest point of land, between the water and the rising sweep of open land bleached yellow-green by sun (in front of the house).” With mullioned windows, French doors opening on to a terrace, the ruins of a summer pavilion and the vague pattern of shrubs outlining a formal garden, the house enchants Marian.
But Ben, who drove the overgrown dirt and gravel road to the house, is quicker to notice the rippled roof tiles, broken and discolored shingles, windows patched with cardboard, tilting bannisters and dead trees around the house.
It takes the hypnotic sales pitch of Roz Allardyce and her brother Arnold, Marian’s breathless enthusiasm and the highly affordable price to convince Ben to sign the contract for a July 1 to Labor Day stay.
There’s just one catch: when the Allardyce siblings go on their every-other-year-trip, they will be leaving their beloved mother behind.  She’ll be no trouble, the Allardyces assure the Rolfes; she never leaves her bedroom. She just needs someone to bring a tray of food to her sitting room three times a day.

And that begins the Rolfes’ summer vacation.

Almost immediately, unusual things begin to happen in the house. Subtle things that people tend to dismiss with a wave of the hand: unexplainable restless nights, Marian’s obsession with the house and its furnishings, and Ben’s moodiness and behavior changes.

The genius of this book is Marasco’s ability to take mundane events and add a sheen of creepiness to them. Like The Elementals, this story takes place in broad summer daylight. There are no moaning ghosts, rattling chains or frigid spots in the parlor. “Good” things happen, but your gut tells you, “This is bad, really bad.”

Marasco does a sublime job of weaving the characters and their personal fears into the story leaving you doubting everything you’ve read. The suspense mounts steadily, relentless to the story’s startling ending.

New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said of this book, “It made my skin crawl, there were some pages I simply didn’t want to turn, and I had a deliciously awful time.”

The Author: Robert Marasco (1936 – 1998)

After graduating from Fordham College, Robert Marasco taught Latin, Greek and English at Regis High School in Manhattan for nine years. Regis was his high school alma mater.

Over two summers, he wrote a play, Child’s Play, which opened on Broadway in 1970 and received five Tony Awards. The play dealt with demonic doings at a Catholic boys’ school. The play was inspired partly by his own experiences as a teacher and by a newspaper account he had read about a teacher, who after assigning his students homework, immediately killed himself by jumping out a classroom window. Another influence was Ingmar Bergman’s film, “Torrent,” which featured a sadistic Latin teacher.

The play was made into a 1972 film directed by Sidney Lumet with a cast that included James Mason, Robert Preston and Beau Bridges.

The success of Child’s Play allowed him to become a full-time writer.

Burnt Offerings, his first novel, was adapted into a film of the same name in 1976. The film was directed by Dan Curtis and starred Karen Black and Oliver Reed with appearances by Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart and Bette Davis in smaller roles. The setting was moved from Long Island to California and the movie was filmed at Dunsmuir House in Oakland.

He wrote a second novel, Parlor Games, in 1979.

Marasco spent his later life in High Falls, New York. He died of lung cancer in 1998, leaving several unproduced screenplays and the finished play, Our Sally.


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