Previously, I looked at John Russell Fearn's Within That Room! (1946), a locked room novelette reminiscent of Jonathan Creek, published originally in the Toronto Star Weekly, but the bare-bones of the plot had an earlier incarnation as a short impossible crime story – which is under review today. Initially, I picked two other little-known locked room stories, in order to pad out this post, but I was unimpressed with both them. So I scrapped them.
Fearn's "Chamber of Centuries" was first printed in the September, 1940 issue of Thrilling Mysteries and the plot has all the same ingredients as its extended adaptation, but the story-telling here's a lot tighter. "Chamber of Centuries" is practically the same story as Within That Room!, but tells that story in less than a dozen pages. Only place where they really differ is in the finer details.
|Thrilling Mysteries, Sep. 1940|
One of these differences are the protagonists, Dick and Jane, who enter the picture here as a recently married couple traveling down to "the sprawling, ill-organized township of Calford."
Jane had no intention to return to the place of her ancestors, but Dick wanted to spend a holiday in the town to "lay the family ghost" who haunts one of the rooms in the dark, gloomy ancestral pile of his wife – a house that had been transported to the Americas stone by stone. Sir Jonathan Melrose was Jane's great-great-great grandfather and he was notorious in his days as a dangerous, irresponsible practical joker, which landed him in a spot of trouble in England. So he had to pack-up, including his home, and sailed across the ocean to the New World. However, he was followed by his enemies, who eventually killed him in his bedroom, but Sir Jonathan foretold that "his presence would forever haunt the room."
The ghost of Sir Jonathan returns to the room every June 22nd, at seven in the evening, until "the house should be demolished." There's also an evil, unsettling influence in the room that prevents everyone from staying there for longer than three minutes.
After the premise has been established, "Chamber of Centuries" largely follows the same sequence of events as Within That Room: Dick and Jane experience the evil influence when they entered the haunted room for the first time. The two servants, Mr. and Mrs. Baxter, are up to no good in the basement and a second inspection of the dusty, ghost-haunted room brings them face to face with the translucent figure of Sir Jonathan – a figure attired in old-fashioned clothes with one hand dramatically out-thrust.
Regrettably, this scene is not as good, or memorable, as the demonic manifestation in the novelette and suppose that has to do with the sort of being that appeared in that room. A trick that makes appear as if one of the devil's henchmen entered a sealed chamber is far more impressive than the ghostly manifestation of a long-dead practical joker.
Anyway, the last part of this short story, like its opening, differs in some regards from the novelette. There's no murder in this story and the culprits are not as harshly punished here as in the novelette. A second notable alteration can be found in the motive. Within That Room! takes place in England, while "Chamber of Centuries" is set in the United States, which required the motive to be slightly modified. A modification that turned the motive into something that some would describe as stereotypical American!
Finally, the mental attacks weren't as well handled, or explained, here and that has to with both a change in the methods and the shorter length of this story, but, besides those minor details, the stories are pretty much the same.
On a whole, "Chamber of Centuries" is a fun, pulp-style impossible crime yarn, but personally, I prefer the extended rendition of the plot, because it allowed the best aspects of the plot to shine – like the two main characters and the impossibilities in the haunted room. It's without doubt the better of the two versions. So if you plan to read one of these two stories, I highly recommend you go with Within That Room! Or read it before the short story.
On a final, unrelated note: I wanted to return to Christopher Bush for my next read, but another short story collection found its way into my hands. So that one is next on the list.