Hobgoblin by John Coyne. Published July 1982 by Berkley Books. 342 pages.
So last night I finished my long-overdue reread of John Coyne's fantasy-horror yarn Hobgoblin, and I will say right now that some aspects of my review will be tainted as it is a work viewed through nostalgia-colored glasses. This compact little terror tale has been present on a bookshelf in my home for the better part of three decades. Being a child of the 80's, as well as being someone raised on Dungeons and Dragons, a lot of the elements incorporated into the framework of the story resonated with me on a personal level. To the casual reader, today, some of the ideas, dialogue, etc., might seem corny and dated. Hopefully this same reader can put aside these biases and enjoy this well-written story.
Before we get into the review, let's take a peek at the description on the back, shall we?
Scott Gardiner is weird.
He thinks the monsters in his fantasy game are real.
He thinks he sees Hobgoblins at the castle where his mother works.
He thinks his girl friend is being stalked by the Black Annis because of what happened to her in the graveyard.
He thinks his high school is filled with blood-spewing Gorfs and flesh-hungry Groundbats from the darkness of Irish legend.
Scott Gardiner is right.
So he's throwing the biggest party of the year.
Reading this, as well as the (blatantly false) claims on the front:
The Dungeons are real.
The Dragons are real.
The Terror is here.you might think that what you are getting is a sensationalist tale (like Rona Jaffe's Mazes & Monsters) playing on parental fears of their child becoming the next James Dallas Egbert.
Point blank; that's not what Hobgoblin is. At all. Back in the early 80's, there was fear born of urban legend, and apparently the opinion of someone's psychiatrist, that some of the introverted youngsters playing these RPG's would become so emotionally invested in them that their already fragile grasp on reality would snap and they would be rendered unable to separate reality from a fantasy world filled with goblins and bugbears. And people fell for this (then again these same people also believed that D&D was promoting devil worship due to the appearance of devils and demons in the original AD&D Monster Manual). And luckily, those same people were punished for their gullibility, in the form of a Mazes & Monsters TV movie 'starring' a young, desperate for cash Tom Hanks:
Not exactly Dr. Langdon's finest hour, but it serves him right.
We've had Dungeons and Dragons, and Mazes & Monsters, so what exactly is Hobgoblin (the game)? Actually, Hobgoblin was pretty ahead of its time. The fictional game that Coyne crafts for the novel incorporates three types of fantasy gaming; the "role-playing" aspect of D&D, the "card" aspect of games like Magic, and a "board" akin to Games Workshop offerings (yes, the use of figurines was huge in D&D, but using an actual crafted diorama to represent scale and events was more in line with British counterparts). Coyne also injects welcome authenticity by basing the lore of the Hobgoblin world on Irish mythology. A hack author might have been tempted to just insert 'made-up' names to pad out their D&D clones, giving us creatures with ludicrous names like "fecalite". By using established lore, Coyne makes Hobgoblin feel like a game whose supplements you would snatch right off the wall at The Compleat Strategist, as well as giving us a primer of some intriguing Celtic mythology.
Now, on to the book. Finally....
In Hobgoblin, we are presented with young Scott Gardiner. Scott is not exactly, as the back cover puts it, 'weird', but he does fit the 80's RPG'er template to a tee. He is introverted, repressive, awkward (especially regarding the fairer sex). He is a high-functioning student. Of course he wears glasses. So yes, the stereotypical gamer. But, stereotypes don't become stereotypes without an impressive track record of accuracy, and, on his appearance, Scott fits the bill. Many readers might find it difficult to sympathize and/or even like Scott. Tell the truth, it's kind of hard to warm up to him. He's not a gregarious kid, he's often sullen and even a bit boorish. But Scott Gardiner isn't mean, or vindictive. And actually, he has some good reasons to be withdrawn.
Early on in the book, Scott's father dies suddenly from a heart attack. At roughly the same time, away at his prep school, Scott's nearly invincible Hobgoblin character, legendary paladin Brian Ború, is slain in combat. In the fallout of these two soul-crushing events, Scott and his mother, Barbara, have to move, and find themselves in Upstate New York. This gives Scott an extra helping of stress, as he has to re-acclimate to a new environment and new people. And, honestly, being a resident of Upstate New York for the past three years, I can totally understand the horror he must have felt. Barbara Gardiner lands a job at an old Irish castle, Ballycastle, which was built (actually brought from Ireland stone by stone) by the Gatsby-esque Fergus O'Cuileannain, an Irish tycoon that died young and left a fortune in a Trust. As ominous and foreboding as the castle and the surrounding grounds are, Barbara is smart enough to realize that there is only so far a woman in the 80's can go with an art history degree (exactly the same distance that it goes in 2013).
The medieval Ballycastle serves as ample fuel for Scott's Hobgoblin fantasies, as does Conor Fitzpatrick, the sole holdover employee from O'Cuileannain's days, who gifts Scott with traditional Irish weaponry and regales him with tales of mythology of the Eire. This worries Barbara. She knows how impressionable Scott is. She knows he is dressing up and pretending to be Brian Ború. And she knows just how dangerous these tendencies can be.
In all fairness, she may be on to something....
And yet, things are not all bad. A lovely young lady, Valerie Dunn, has taken a liking to Mr. Gardiner. She can see the good behind the standoffish exterior. Unfortunately for both of them, their burgeoning relationship has caught both the attention and ire of Borgus and Simpson.
Love is also in the air for Barbara Gardiner. The young widow finds another chance at love developing with her boss, Derek Brennan, the executive director at Ballycastle. This poses a problem for her, though. Already facing difficulties communicating with her quiet son, what is perceived as bringing in a 'replacement' for his dead father only makes things worse.
Now, Hobgoblin would have been just fine as being a study in these peoples' lives; watching as they learn to cope with loss and learn to live again. But this isn't a character study; it's a horror novel. And after an opening act where we meet everyone, strange things start happening.
There are weird things going on at Ballycastle. And they aren't only in Scott's head. There is some kind of creature roaming the grounds. It tried to break into the house when Barbara was alone; it comes into the house when Scott and Valerie are spending time together, and, worst of all, it attacks Valerie when she is alone in Ballycastle's extremely creepy graveyard. All three also can agree that this being loping through the forest bears a resemblance to the Black Annis, another creature from the Hobgoblin game, and one of the more frightening nightmares of Irish lore:
Exactly what you want to be visited by while you are making out with your girlfriend.
While this is going on, Barbara is busy trying to get to the bottom of some mysterious happenings in Ballycastle's past. That same graveyard mentioned earlier is not only the resting place of Fergus O'Cuileannain, but also the burial grounds for a slew of young Irish girls that had died in his employ, poor girls that had been brought over from the old country and had passed in the prime of their youth. Will uncovering the truth behind their deaths endanger the future of the estate's Trust, or are the stakes actually much, much higher?
In an attempt to integrate Scott into Flat Rock life, and warm the students to him and his Hobgoblin-y ways, it is agreed for an upcoming school dance to be held at Ballycastle, where the event will be a dance/Hobgoblin-LARP hybrid. Here, Scott will finally come face to face with the truth, with reality, and with himself.
Coyne has created a work that boasts solid prose and remains gripping from beginning to end. This is no small praise; horror novels were a dime a dozen at the time, and most were spat out by third rate hacks. Many of these novels might feature decent writing in one facet of the story, like in the details of violence, or sexual situations, etc. Coyne, however, presents descriptive scenery, believable (even if at times unlikable) characters, and jarring scenes of violence. He is a solid writer of other horror works (The Legacy, The Searing, The Piercing) who is still going strong thirty years later, now writing about another of his passions, golf. I can say assuredly that I will be tracking down more of his horror work.
Coyne structures each chapter around Scott and Barbara, as the encounter situations that are not directly related, but essentially similar. As the story evolves, we watch as they both struggle with their 'new lives'. Scott's troubles have already been covered; but it bears remembering that Barbara is starting over as well. She had married young, and her deceased husband was a powerful, successful man that she was content and secure in following. Now she has a chance to solidify a career on her own, and re-discover romance with a man who is happy to walk alongside her, not just lead the way. By the end of the tale, we can see that Scott and his mother are actually very similar people, making all of their past estrangement unnecessary.
While I personally have no complaints about Hobgoblin, I can understand some readers having an issue with the final act. What Hobgoblin becomes in the end is not a psychological thriller, or a supernatural tale, but rather straight up slasher fiction. I mean, there are implausible scenarios throughout the tale (or maybe not, from what I've seen up here the levels of bullying and sexual harassment portrayed in the high schools might be spot on), but the ending goes pretty balls to the wall. It's handled nicely though.
Books like Hobgoblin and Mazes & Monsters caught some flak back in the day for being condescending and dismissive towards RPG's and their players. They seemed to associate salvation with 'growing up' and giving up on playing. Well, maybe that's true for M&M, but not so much here. Scott Gardiner is not at risk of getting lost in a steam tunnel, or in a mentally reclusive fantasy world. He is, however, a kid who is going through some tough times, and ends up a little overly-invested in a game that offers a little more fun that reality. Haven't we all felt that way about something, sometime?
Here's what it is:
Bar none, the authoritative "D&D Panic" novel. A masterful slasher-film in book form, that stands strong three decades after it was unleashed on the world.
Some sexual situations, so a little intense even for young adults.
Ah the 80's. Epic VHS covers. Epic book covers. This one is no different. A two-page cover flap design, you can see the outer cover above, with what appears to be Scott trapped in a dungeon behind a portcullis gate (presumably showing how he feels in the 'real world'). Open the first flap and you see....
Cover Final Score: