Homage to Black is gothic comedy

Legend has it contractors refused to touch a wall at the County Offaly residence that's the inspiration for this tale.

By Irish Echo Staff

Jeff Durstewitz was editing news copy at the “Record” in Troy, N.Y, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1992 when the phone rang. He had no idea that the call, from a friend in Ireland, held news that would change his life.

His friend, whom he’d met as a student at Oswego in 1971, was his former writing instructor Campbell Black, a novelist who later quit academe as his thrillers, many written under the name Campbell Armstrong, took off. There was a catch, though.

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“Uncle Sam was killing him. He’d tried shelters, but they collapsed when the tax law changed in ’86,” said Durstewitz, who later handled publications at Ayco, a Goldman Sachs financial services subsidiary. “By the late ‘80s he was feeling frustrated.”

A Scot and UK citizen, Black had been living in Sedona, Ariz., in 1991. He’d been considering moving to Glasgow, his native city, but UK taxes were even higher. Then he’d heard of Ireland’s tax exemption for writers. “For him,” Durstewitz said, “it was like finding gold at the end of the rainbow. And it helped that Ireland was close to home.”

Then the phone rang on St. Patrick’s Day. “I’m in Ireland,” his friend said, “living in a house you won’t believe.”

As Durstewitz discovered when he visited in 1993, his friend’s forbidding (and abundantly haunted) Georgian mansion, Cangort House, was, indeed, hard to believe. Built by an Englishman in Shinrone, near Birr in County Offaly, it had become what Black called “the mother of all money pits” by the time he bought it. But by 1993 it was a showplace, except for an odd thing: “One room had a wall right behind the window,” Durstewitz said. It was called “the Devil’s room.” And, of course, it carried a legend.

“The first owner held 11,000 acres — including the village. Supposedly he chanced upon the parish priest while walking one day. The priest, trying to make the best of an awkward meeting, suggested they play a friendly game of cards sometime. The owner replied: ‘Sit down with you, sir? I’d rather sit down with the Devil!’

“And, when he got home and went to his room, the legend went, that’s who he found.”

Durstewitz says Black, who died in 2013, had decided to take down the wall during later renovations but found that local contractors, usually keen for work, wouldn’t touch the job.

“So he left the wall alone,” Durstewitz says, “but I thought: What if he’d taken it down?”

Thus was born his novel, written under the name of his great uncle, Joe Fegan — an homage to Black that he calls an Irish gothic comedy. “Campbell always wanted me to write fiction,” says Durstewitz. “Then he handed me an incredible story on a platter. I tried to combine his dark thriller style with laughter. Funny mayhem, you could call it.” He also notes that visiting Ireland while writing the book made him appreciate his own Irish heritage more.

Prospective readers can find a free chapter on the book’s new website, thedevilsroom.com, and purchase it on Amazon.com.