The Devil's Room
Awash in Guinness, he bought a haunted Irish manor with an odd walled-off room … what could go wrong?
A word about Joe Fegan
Lots of devilish Irish surprises in this book
Albany Times UnionWhat does a pioneering Ben & Jerry’s franchisee, newspaperman and financial writer know about the devil?
Quite a bit, at least if Joe Fegan’s “The Devil’s Room” is any indication.
The gothic horror novel, which combines elements of a sex comedy, political commentary and a good dose of dark Irish folklore, is Fegan’s debut novel. And like the characters in the book, all is not what it seems.
Fegan is the pen name for Jeff Durstewitz, a onetime copy editor at the Times Union as well as the Buffalo News and Philadelphia Inquirer and former operator of Saratoga Springs’ Ben & Jerry’s. (He was New York’s first franchisee; he grew up with the real Ben and Jerry in Merrick, Long Island). Durstewitz, a Saratoga Springs resident, also has worked as a personal finance writer.
His funny, phantasmagoric tale has echoes of his own life and some of the people he’s met along the way.
“The Devil’s Room” starts with a fairly straightforward premise, albeit one with the makings of horror movie plot. An upstate New York college professor-turned-successful-novelist, Trelawney Smart, moves to rural Ireland to take advantage of the tax break offered to writers residing on the Emerald Isle.
He buys an old manor house and quickly discovers a walled-off room that none of the villagers in his picaresque new hometown want to talk about. Ignoring their advice, he takes a sledgehammer and opens the long-closed room, causing, you guessed it, all hell to break loose.
We’ll leave it at that, but the story takes some interesting turns, along with some subplots about his wife and another long-lost woman from Smart’s troubled past.
For Durstewitz, the story rings close to home on several levels. He’s part-Irish, and admits with a chuckle that his pen name gives him more “Irish cred” than Durstewitz.
Mostly though, the book is an homage to his fiction-writing mentor, a SUNY Oswego writing professor, Campbell Black, who wrote under the name Campbell Armstrong.
They kept in touch after college and became friends. Durstewitz said Black had always encouraged him to try his hand at fiction. Fiction writing had worked out exceptionally well for Black over the years, who published a raft of thrillers such as “Assassins & Victims,” “Jigsaw” and a novelization of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Black eventually moved to an old Irish manor house to take advantage of that country’s tax break for writers.
Durstewitz and his family paid Black several visits prior to his death in 2013, and he recalled that the manor had its own gothic mythology, centering on an Englishman who had built the house. As legend had it, he had disrespected the village priest and came home to find the devil in his house, specifically in a walled-off room that actually existed in Black’s place. Such closed-off rooms aren’t uncommon in Irish estate homes, Durstewitz noted, and it is said they serve as deterrents to superstitious burglars who fear entering a cursed space.
“They never opened the Devil’s room,” he said of the real room in Black’s home. “I thought, ‘What if they did?’ ” “I wrote the novel that I always wanted Campbell to write.”
Durstewitz is also the co-author with Ruth Williams of “Younger Than That Now — A Shared Passage From the Sixties,” a memoir of living through that era’s political turmoil.
Self-published, “The Devil’s Room” can be found in Northshire Bookstore and Celtic Treasures in Saratoga Springs, The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza and on Amazon.