Jane Chambers | Jove HBJ Books | 1978 | 157 pages
Lurid cover art replete with the obligatory marketing call-outs to The Omen and Salem’s Lot (so prevalent to the time of publication) disguises a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on love and acceptance, with an intrinsic horror rising from societal fear and ignorance—in past centuries, and our own.
Burning essentially tells the story of four women, two in the past and two in the present, who struggle to free themselves from the restrictive roles that confine them. Nominally a story of possession, the empathy for both pairs of women easily elevates the proceedings from the standard “evil ghost” template.
Cynthia, a wife and mother who abandoned her dreams of an art career to have a family, yearns for time away from Dave, the passive husband that she manipulates, but seems unable to mold into a successful businessman. Angela, a young woman hired as nanny for Cynthia’s two children, lives a lonely life, driven by occasional, unrealized crushes on older women.
Acquiescing to Cynthia’s need for a break from the summer heat in the city, Dave arranges for a vacation for her, the children, and Angela in a Massachusetts farmhouse. Soon after their arrival, Cynthia feels a strange attraction to an addition to the house, an older, rough-hewn room off the kitchen. With the room as a focal point, Cynthia and Angela begin to channel the words and actions of two women who lived there two hundred years ago.
Through Cynthia, Martha speaks, an abandoned love child now grown up and alone after the death of her mother. She lives isolated from the village in the farmhouse, cast out and viewed as untouchable by the community. Through Angela, Abigail speaks, a young itinerant woman living on the property of a wealthy landowner. Eventually she joins Martha, and both women, ostracized by the community, are drawn together in a romantic tryst that dangerously defies the values of their witch-hunting times.
Aware of the forces working through them, Cynthia and Angela also begin a romantic affair, unsure whether or not their actions are truly their own. A spurned romantic overture from a young squire towards Abigail triggers the past narrative forward to the conclusion predestined by the book’s title. A similar action in the present involving Angela drives the suspense, with the growing prospect of Cynthia and Angela’s fate mirroring that of their predecessors.
Drawing on the parallels fueling ignorance, hatred and oppression across the centuries, Burning succeeds as something more than a simple horror tale. After a group of drunken young men in a bar are overheard relating their story of a recent weekend’s debauchery–buying prostitutes and beating up a suspected gay man–this exchange, woefully echoing the current state of mind as society launches into a new political era of bigotry, prejudice, and scapegoating:
“That’s the future of America,” Red declared to the bartender.
“Dear God,” the old man muttered, “I hope not.”