Charles Wadsworth Camp is best remembered today as the father of author Madeleine L'Engle, but ink ran through the family's blood as Camp himself wrote detective novels, thrillers, books of military interest and short stories – some of which were turned into movies during the 1920s. Camp wrote his most successful, best-known detective novels when the Great War temporarily stemmed the flow of the genre and gives Camp the distinction of being one of the few mystery writers from the period 1914-18. More importantly, Robert Adey listed two of Camp's WWI era mysteries in Locked Room Murders (1991).
Back in 2014, I reviewed The Abandoned Room (1917) that reads like an ancestor of Hake Talbot abounding with ghostly impossibilities inside locked rooms or corpses ceasing to be death upon being touched as the void between the living and dead slowly appeared to dissolve. What held it back in the end as a genre classic of those pre-GAD years is that the plot is shackled to the cliches and gimmicks of a bygone era. While very well, evocatively written and convincingly put to use, The Abandoned Room obviously lacked the rigor and ingenuity the genre would rapidly develop over the next decade or two. Nevertheless, The Abandoned Room is better written than most detective novels of the period and can see how it could have potentially ignited the imagination of a very young John Dickson Carr. So that second locked room mystery never quite left my wishlist.
Camp's House of Four (1916), alternatively published under its 1928 movie title The Last Warning, has an entry in Locked Room Murders describing a whole raft of different impossibilities. There are inexplicable deaths, mysterious vanishings, invisible entities and "many other impossible and near impossible happenings." Such as telephone calls from beyond the grave and the furtive pattering of a ghost cat. House of Fear seems to follow the impossible crime tradition of early works like L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898) or some of the more rational tales from William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki, the Ghost Finder (1913). Stories that use the expose and subsequent debunking of apparently supernatural occurrences to frame an impossible crime or locked room mystery, which often turn on obscure, poorly understood natural phenomena, scientific knowledge or mechanical gadgets – which can come across as crude and dated in the 21st century. While the scientific detective story survived, the naturalistic, turn-of-the-century impossible crime story in which scientific-minded ghost hunters attempt to find a rational explanation to seemingly supernatural events disappeared as the 1920s rolled around.
It seems like Camp wanted to return to those early, turn-of-the-century stories. Plot-wise, anyway, because the detective and gloomy backdrop makes House of Fear one of the earliest theatrical mystery novels on record. Arthur McHugh, "an aggressive, ambitious Irishman," had "fought his way from the headquarters detective force to a managerial throne from which he wielded a supreme power over many actors and actresses and plays." So not an investigator of the paranormal, but an ex-policeman who became a Broadway theatrical manager.
Arthur McHugh conceived of the brilliant idea to stage a revival of a four decades old play, "Coward's Fare," which ended tragically when famous actor and director Bertrand Woodford died on stage. During an impassioned scene, the limping Woodford toppled to the stage, lain still and never got up to receive the adoration and applause of the audience. Disturbingly, the black cat who was Woodford's constant companion, "rushed from the wings and curled itself on the motionless body" where "it had fought and scratched tigerishly when anxious hands had tried to snatch it off." Ever since, the Woodford Theater gained a haunting reputation and became "a tradition in the profession, an evil one, a menace, in short, for the superstitious." So why not resurrect the play in exactly the same place as where it died forty years ago? But actors can be a superstitious lot. McHugh has hands full with keeping the rehearsals goings, hunting ghosts and playing detective when Bertrand Woodford begins to make his presence felt throughout the old theater. The inexplicable incidents come thick and fast.
The first incident takes place when they go to look over the dark, empty and decaying theater, in which "the past seemed to have gathered with a heavy and tangible melancholy," when the lights suddenly go dark and those present hear the dragging footsteps across the stage of one who limped – tailed by "furtive pattering like the noiseless pursuit of a cat." The disembodied, dragging footsteps and the unaccountable pattering reminiscent of a cat stalk the characters throughout the story. Dolly Timken, who also played with Woodford forty years ago, swears she can feel the presence of a cat either on stage or roaming around the theater, but nobody has seen a cat. Things get far more serious than just getting scared in the dark.
A part of the ghost stories surrounding the old theater that "Woodford dead, as jealously as Woodford alive, would permit no man to play his part." The actor who played Woodford's part, Carlton, is not immune to the stories and claims to have received mysterious "warnings from the airs," which later turn out to have been threatening phone calls from the long-dead actor ("Your phone has not been rung since noon. It could not have been rung"). During the first rehearsal, Carlton simply drops dead "the very point, the very line at which Woodford forty years ago had died." A doctor and subsequent autopsy reveal his heart simply stopped without any apparent reason. So now McHugh has a death that could potentially be murder on his hands as well as having to deal with scared actors, frightened stagehands and the reclusive, misery owner of the theater who wants to cancel the lease when the papers get a hold of the story ("Mysterious Death in City's Oldest Theater"). All the while, the paranormal activity continue with barely a pause.
The most notable of these incidents is when the playwright who modernized to play, Richard Quaile, is asked by McHugh to hold a nighttime vigil inside the empty and locked theater. Right on cue, the ghostly footsteps return closely followed followed by the purring of a cat, but this time, the sound takes on the shape of a "growing splotch of unnatural radiance" stalking down a passageway. Quaile shoots at the light in the passageway ("...the bullet altered nothing"), before it vanished from a locked theater without a trace. The place is subsequently searched (twice) in the presence of a policeman, but nobody is found hiding inside. This is only about half of all the impossible and quasi-impossible situations. A door is locked and unlocked with nobody inside. The ghost of the dead actor and his cat appear on a photograph taken to be used as a promotional poster and there's a fascinating episode of lost time. The actor who replaced Carlton in the play, Tyler Wilkins, had left his apartment to go to the dress rehearsal and had, "as far as he knew, come straight, nevertheless had taken an hour and a half to complete the twenty-minute journey" – experiencing that hour and a half as twenty minutes ("that hour's gone out of my life"). I was quite impressed at both the pace and rate these impossible and quasi-impossible began to pile up as well as their overall quality and consistency comparable to Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944) or Horatio Winslow and Leslie Quirk's Into Thin Air (1928/29). It certainly showed more ingenuity than you would expect to find in a mystery novel from the mid-1910s.
Now, that being said, House of Fear is not completely free of some hoary, time-worn trickery and tropes that belonged to a bygone era, but the death of Carlton during the rehearsal has a glimmer of the coming Golden Age. I expected from the emphasis put on (ROT13) gur pnaqyrfgvpx va gur cynl naq gur yvar “V bayl fhttrfg gung ryrpgevpvgl nf n zrqvhz sbe fcvevghny pbzzhavpngvba vf jbegu n tbbq qrny bs gubhtu” that the murder was accomplished by (ROT13) ryrp-gevpx-vgl, but Camp provided a very different solution to the actor's inexplicable demise. I was pleasantly surprised as it was linked to the problem of the lost hour from which I expected nothing more than clocks being manipulated. So on the account of those two impossible problems alone, the book is a noteworthy, early impossible crime novel. While the other impossibilities and locked room tend to be a much lesser, sometimes poorly dated quality, they serve their purpose as camouflage to "Scooby Doo" a highly conventional, 1930s style American detective story. I was working along the lines of Gaston Leroux's Le fantôme de l'opéra (The Phantom of the Opera, 1909) and Christopher Fowler's Full Dark House (2003) trying to spot a missing character from the past who could have been secretly living in the theater for the past forty years. It took a while for the penny to drop and began to grasp what could be behind the haunting activity. Admittedly, not everything is done or pulled off with same rigor and sportsmanship as your average Golden Age mystery, but more than you can hope to expect from a detective story published in 1916.
Something else the ghostly impossibilities and locked rooms effectively covered up is any reference to the war raging on in Europe at the time. The book appeared a year before America officially entered the conflict to turn it into a full-blown World War. I'm probably giving too much weight to this observation, but House of Fear breaths nostalgia-flavored escapism and interestingly contrasted with how the dark, melancholic past appeared to continuously reject the present like the theater being described as having "an air of asking to be left alone in its decay" or Woodford's ghost warning over the telephone to keep away – saying "I prefer to play my parts to empty seats." So it probably was not written with the intention to distract readers from the war, but it would certainly serve that purpose and thought it deserved a mention as it, technically, a wartime mystery novel.
So, cutting another overlong review short, Camp's House of Fear is a dramatically underrated mystery novel that falls between the Doylean era of the genre and the then coming Golden Age. I anticipated to find little more than a very well written, evocative, but somewhat dated, curiosity littering that particular period of the genre, but got so much more out of it than a mere curio. Purely as a locked room mystery, it's not tied with both hands to the past and dared to try something new and fresh at the time. On top of that, House of Fear is a pretty decent detective story that could very well be the granddaddy of the ever popular theatrical mystery novel. So there's much here for to recommend and for you to rediscover!
It sounds pretty intriguing. The theatrical element particularly appeals to me. Thank you for sharing!ReplyDelete
This is a must read, if you like theatrical mysteries. A real vintage. Hope you'll enjoy it!Delete
Everytime I think I have every GAD or pre-GAD book I want, you and other excellent bloggers alert me to new authors. I never heard of Wadsworth Camp but ordered House of Fear and The Abandoned Room today. Normally if you say a book is worth reading, I enjoy it so look forward to these then as well. Thanks.ReplyDelete
Happy to help feed your addiction, Scott. I recommend starting with House of Fear and just enjoy The Abandoned Room for its creepy atmosphere. Enjoy!Delete
Sounds like a hoot! And available on Gutenburg too, presumably. I seem to remember the "solution" section for this one in Locked Room Murders is just "Read the book to find out".ReplyDelete
Yeah, there are so many of them, it's impossible to briefly describe all the solutions. And why are your peaking at the solutions? That's not what we mean we say Adey and Skupin's Locked Room Murder spoiled impossible crime fans!Delete
Well, I wanted do some data collecting on solutions - how common they are or so on. If I'd heard of the story and wanted to read it, I didn't look - for example I'm not peeking at any Carrs I haven't read yet!Delete
I only really remember unusual "solutions", such as this one where it's not revealed, and the odd one that Adey/Skupin comments on. Most solutions are too mundane to attach to a particular story.
Camp sounds like a very intriguing writer. I'll have to check this out. I'm pleasantly surprised to see that it's available on the Internet Archive, since so the works of so many of these forgotten, public domain authors is completely unavailable online. I've run up against that problem a few times, and it never ceases to be aggravating...ReplyDelete