(Cover of the rare Italian Locked Rooms collection, which includes the novel by Fearn)
Published at 1946 with name and surname original, Within That Room!, is still, by someone defined more than a mystery, a horror novel. But, instead, it is a mystery novel with a strong and steady connotation of the gothic genre.
John (Francis) Russell Fearn was born in 1908 in Worsley in Lancashire (UK). He published many novels, especially westerns and science fiction . In this last genre, he excelled, winning the masses of readers, under the pseudonym Vargo Statten. Other pseudonyms, signed novels of a different kind: Thornton Ayre, Polton Cross, Geoffrey Armstrong, John Cotton, Dennis Clive, Ephriam Winiki, Astron Del Martia, etc. ..
Fearn also published 26 novels under various names, of different genres, among them, several contained Locked Rooms.
Fearn died in 1960.
Within That Room! is still essentially a room that kills. It’s the old subject invented by Eden Phillpotts with The Grey Room, and then cooled by other authors, including for example The Door to Doom by John Dickson Carr.
Here is a heroic nurse of Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), which, immediately after the second world war, rather unexpectedly inherits from a geezer uncle, famous entomologist, a site surrounded by an aura strange and disturbing: Sunny Acres . Vera Grantham, does not believe the old stories of ghost that surround the castle inherited from his uncle Cirrus; yet she is located just before the hostility of the people, when you know she is the new owner of the manor: no one wants to go with her, so young woman ends up accepting the offer of a young man who does not know, an airman in the RAF, veteran as she, Dick Wilmott, who is trying to open a radio repair shop. On the shabby car of him, they reach the castle, inhabited only by two servants, the Failworth , he the butler, she the cook and the housekeeper.
The young woman, newly arrived, hopes to finda peaceful atmosphere,and insteadthetwo servants, begin to press herto sellthe propertyin order–they say–to avoid the problems by the girl’s uncle, CirrusMerriforth, become mad .More, however, thetwo servants, and in particular the housekeeper, trying toterrorize theyounger,getas result herapathy.One evening,the girlsurpriseswithout being seen, the two servantsintentin the basementto pumpamysterious liquidfroma manholein the stone floorof the cellarand to openall sorts ofcontainersat their disposal:the twoare wearinggas masksto protect themselves frompoisonousandstinkingfumes, immediatelyconvincingthe girl whois spying them, toseek somehelp.Sothe next morning she goes toGodalming, aplace nearwhere is theshopof DickWilmottand prays theyoung man, whois secretly in lovewith her, to go with herto the castle,pretending to beengaged.Mrs.Failworthdoes not believeat allthatthe two say, realizingthat the game ofterror andthe saleof the castlecan not result as they had intended: the young does not sell,even better,together with theyoung, she wants tovisit the cursed room, that had led to themadness her uncle, and at which is said tomanifesta ghost,and at June 21, alsoan evil spirit. They madeunrivetthe door, whose jambsare nailedand whosecracksaresealed withadhesive tape, the two entering into:it is acompletely emptyroom, filled to capacitywith dust anddominated by a largefireplace,thebottom of which hascollapsed. Soon, they begin to haveseriousbreathing problems, andalso seea ghostmaterialize, grinning. They have toleave the room,to go backto being able tobreathe andtoreflectwith clear mind.
More and moreconvincedby the attitudeof the servants, that they are involvedin some kind ofplotagainst them, the two young people cometo the law firmthathandled thetransfer of propertyfrom his uncleto his nieceandcome to knowthat such achemicalanalyst, Harry Castairs, offered to detectthe castle andaroundthe property, about fifteen thousand pounds; connectingto the professionof the buyercluesconcerningthe mysteriousliquidpumpedfrom undergroundandsmellystenchthat accompaniesthe extraction,are convincedof the existence ofsomeunderground source, corroboratedby the discoveryin abook from the libraryof the castle,news about thecastle, builton an ancientvolcanic faultapparently.
The twosuspectnow thatthose feelings ofsuffocation andthe stenchof rotten eggs, is due tosulfur dioxideandhydrogen sulfide,twosubstancepresentin volcanic gases, andthe gas ispushed upinto theroom throughthechimney flue: they provethattheunhealthy atmospherein theroomdoes not exist whenthe servantsare engaged inother activities anddo not suspectthat the twoyoung peopleshould enter theroom.Theghost manifestsanyway, andthen,tofindthe explanation,beforethey attribute thecauseto a mysterioussubstanceon theceiling of theroom, thenclinging to ivyclimbing of the tower, Dick is hoistedouttoseefrom the outsidethe window glass, findinga drawn figurecorresponding to thatwhich is manifestedin the damn room.
In the book found in the library of the castle is missing a map of the manor, torn by someone, so the young man goes in search of another copy of the book, which located at an acquaintance of his, not realizing that the cellars are accessed only by the main staircase, but also by a ladder of service.
Again a lot will happen, and continuous revelations will accumulate with each other until the dramatic end, at the torture chamber of the castle.
Novel with a great atmosphere, and with a brisk pace, does not keep its promises to the end, deflating soon, and especially giving the answers too early, so that the expectation of the final revelation is replaced by that concerning the lives of two young men. You will know about the culprits from the beginning and still a few surprise covers only the role of one spouse to the other, and that of the analytical chemist. Moreover, the two young men have not won deservedly the combat with the murderers of his uncle, as they are able to get the better just because one spouse rebels himself to the other while Dick and Vera are helpless, chained and point of being tortured with red-hot embers.
A final liberator, very cinematographic, dominated by the outdated system, but rather elementary and childish ghosts, bad domestic (obviously as in the tradition of the mystery novel super-fashioned), inheritance disputes, treasures, mysterious roots, hell poisons.
Novel does not belong to a distant time, and for this reason excusable, but even to 1946, as if 30s never existed, Fearn realizes a ghost comedy, tucking the reason for the room that kills, but too early revealing the mechanisms deadly , and then removing bite to the story. And setting the novel in the way of the stories of Nancy Drew, in which women are always defenseless beings, engaged couples are knights who rushed to defend the maiden and if there are castles, surely the servants are required to be treacherous.
It ‘s interesting to read only for lovers of Locked Rooms, who want to add another Room to the list of read and understood works.
Pietro De Palma