John Coyne interviewed by Matt Staggs on December 16, 2015
Sometimes you read a book and you just know it’s going to be a part of your life forever. John Coyne’s 1981 horror fantasy Hobgoblin was one of those books for me. It’s the story of Scott Gardiner, a teenager obsessed with “Hobgoblin”: a fantasy role-playing game inspired by Irish mythology. Scott already has a shaky grasp on reality, and after an unexpected tragedy strikes his family he begins to believe that the horrors of the game are real.
I read Hobgoblin at just the right age: I was maybe 12 years-old and quite obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons. Like Scott, my home life wasn’t perfect and school was a complete nightmare. I didn’t have trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy, but there were times when I would have given anything to slip away into a world of sorcerers and dragons.
I saw some of myself in Scott, but that wouldn’t have been enough to make the book stick with me. I read a towering stack of novels every week before I was old enough to get a job, but I only remember a handful of them now. What made Hobgoblin really stick with me was the mythology. I knew nothing about Irish folklore or Celtic myth at the time, and Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell was the first image that came to mind when I thought of fairies. Hobgoblin introduced me to the Black Annis, the Nuckelavee, and some of the other horrifying denizens of faeriedom. Coyne made them all come to terrifying life and ignited in me a lifelong passion for the myths and monsters of the British Isles
Dover Publishing released a new edition of Hobgoblin last month, so I thought that it might be a good time to reach out to the author for a quick interview. Read that below, and be sure to sign up for a chance to win your own copy of this frighteningly good novel.
SUVUDU: I was perhaps 12 or 13 year-old when I first encountered Hobgoblin. I believe I found a copy at my local used paperback shack, and after I came home it immediately sucked me in. If I recall correctly, I think I read it cover to cover during the course of a single intensely hot summer afternoon. It left an indelible impression. While this might be an odd question with which to begin an interview, I’m wondering if there are any books you read as a young person that had the same effect on you?
John Coyne: If we are lucky, we get caught up (or captured) by fiction when we are young. I remember Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, being caught up from the first line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .” of that novel. I can vividly recall at the age of 12 thinking that if I could write such a sentence I would be a powerful person.
I knew that to write beautiful sentences was a real gift. I should mention that I am dyslexic and I couldn’t read until I was about 10. (I still can’t spell.) There were other novels, of course, that influenced me. I would read a novel by an author, love it, and then read everything that he or she wrote. I was particularly fond of John Steinbeck’s novella, The Red Pony. That might have been influenced by the fact that I was raised on a Midwest farm.
Other writers I read when I was very young were Fitzgerald and Hemingway, both of whom were from the Midwest. Hemingway was raised in Oak Park, Illinois, just 30 miles north of where I was from. Fitzgerald was another of those writers who wrote beautiful sentences. And, of course, when I was 15 or 16, I read Catcher in the Rye, and every young kid identified with that character.
SUV: I was an avid Dungeons & Dragons player as a kid (I still am), and it didn’t occur to me that Hobgoblin might be a cautionary novel about the game or attempted cash-in (no offense intended!) on the sensationalism of the era-ike Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters — until I was much older. It was just another scary book to me. In any case, the aura of the forbidden surrounding my harmless hobby made it all the more alluring. Can you talk about what inspired you to write the book? I’m guessing that the Dallas Egbert story might have played a role. How much experience did you have with fantasy games like this?
JC: My novel came out in the fall of ‘81 and Mazes and Monsters was published several months later, as I recall. I never read it. I do remember reading about Dallas Egbert. However, his tragic death had no influence on my book. I was interested in the game as I had heard about it from my nephew, who was then about 14. He was a very serious D&D player. He was a very bright kid. It seemed to be that it was the smart kids, and adults, who were drawn to this fantasy game.
At the time I had published a few occult novels and I was looking for a topic that was outside that frame of reference. I saw in D&D, and the whole idea of such games, a way to move my story telling in a new direction.
What if characters in a fantasy game became characters in real life? That idea intrigued me and to understand this whole world, I began to play the game so I could write Hobgoblin.
SUV: I should probably mention that I made up my own version of “Hobgoblin” as a kid and played it with friends. That’s kind of ironic, right? Talk about not getting the message… Has anyone ever approached you with a serious pitch for a game?
JC: After the publication of the novel, I received more than one letter from a D&Dfan asking if there was a game and several of them asked if they could create one. I told them to go ahead. I am still waiting (and hoping) one of the D&D geniuses will build a game off of the novel. Now, of course, it could be both a board game and a video.
SUV: Hobgoblin was my first introduction to Celtic mythology, a subject in which I still maintain an avid interest. Prior to reading your book, my knowledge of mythology was more or less limited to that of the Norse and Greco-Roman pantheons. Why did you choose to focus on the myths of Ireland and its High Kings? In retrospect, it seems like an obscure (but delightful and challenging) choice in which to base the story. In any case, I have to thank you your efforts: I’m almost 43 now and have a bookshelf full of material about Ireland, the Celtic peoples, and their mythologies thanks to Hobgoblin!
JC: I’m pleased to hear that I sparked such an interest in Irish mythology. The reason I went to Ireland and its long, long history is because I was (somewhat) steeped in it myself, as my father was from Ireland, as was my mother, and I grew up with bedtime stories of Ireland. They were both from the west of island, and my father particularly was from a remote area. He actually only spoke Irish until he was about twelve, then he learned English.
When I was 25 I went to Ireland for the first time, returning home from the Peace Corps in Africa I traveled to Ireland to visit my parents’ homes and my relatives. I fell in love with the land itself, and the people.
So, when it came to finding a mythology for my novel, well, the old sod and the many, many characters, real and imaginary, were just waiting to be put into the plot of Hobgoblin.
SUV: Was Hobgoblin a hard pitch to your agent or publisher? How long did it take to write it? Are there any particular reference works from which you drew while writing the book? Is Ballycastle based on a real place, by any chance?
JC: When I came up with the idea-very general in nature-my agent was positive about it as a working theme. I had sold two or three novels before, and they had been successful to a greater or lesser degree. I wrote the book in about five months. My wife was and is an editor, so she was a great help to me, both as an editor and a critic.
At the time, we were living in New York City, on the upper west side, and far and away from anything like Ballycastle, but we had a weekend home in upstate New York, close to Olana, the historic site, and the former home of a Hudson River artist, Frederic Edwin Church. It was almost a ‘castle’ overlooking parkland and a working farm, as well as, of course, the Hudson River. The home is really an eclectic villa composed of many styles, difficult to categorize, but all wonderful and mysterious, at least to me. So, I had that ’site’ in mind when I sat down to write. Of course, as I said, I had been to Ireland and had seen many, many stately homes and ‘castles’ in the old country.
SUV: Hobgoblin also introduced me to the idea of the unreliable narrator. It’s pretty clear that protagonist Scott Gardiner has some psychiatric issues. The line between fantasy and reality blurs a good bit. It seems like a horror novel to me at times, though. What can you tell me about the creation of the character and his representation in the book?
I decided that Scott, the protagonist, had to be unreliable, as I shifted between him and his mother to tell the story. Also, of course, Valerie has her point-of-view. As did Conor. The reader always is seeking a safe harbor when read a novel. “Who can I trust to tell me the truth?” is what readers want to know.
What I was also trying to do was have a novel that examined the life of teenagers, the sometimes brutal world where they grow up, your average high school. So that, too, contributed to the plot. The reader-whether he or she realizes-is asking: where is the safe harbor for my protagonist? Who can I trust? Without a reliable narrator the reader just doesn’t know who to trust and that increases the tension, which is always a good thing in a novel like this.
SUV: I don’t want to give anything away here, but there’s a theme here of “putting away childish things” as a path to maturity. “Hobgoblin”, the game, is ultimately presented as a major roadblock to Scott’s mental health and maturation. I’ve always found these kinds of ideas interesting in that they tell us something about society’s prevailing cultural mores through its ideas of acceptable forms of recreation. It seems that no one is telling obsessed football fans to put aside their love for the game and grow up. As a matter of fact, the extremes of fandom are actually celebrated in popular culture. I don’t mean to criticize football, of course. There are numerous other examples I could list. It seems like the pastimes most frowned upon are those that live solely in the imagination. Were your own feelings on the topic reflected in the way the story is resolved, or did it just seem like a good way to wind up the story?
JC: I wanted a positive ending to the book. I wanted Scott to walk away a hero and I wanted to tie the two story lines together. In Scott’s case the game was his ’safe harbor,’ a place where he could go, as least in his imagination, as he had to deal with the death of his father and the move to a new school, a new environment. We all need such places from time to time. For Scott, it was “Hobgoblin”.
Also, I wanted to publish the book, therefore, I had to end it! Writers often get into the middle of book, with hundreds of dangling ideas and plots, and suddenly think: how in the hell am I going to finish off this story?
To answer one of your other questions; yes, and serious people- young and old-are drawn to the game, to the complexity of the game, and are fascinated by its possibilities. Scott Gardiner was one of these kids. “Hobgoblin”, like D&D, is much more complex and interesting and challenging than say, Monopoly. It is more than a game. It is a journey into another world and time. When you play the game, you learn about another culture and another time. That’s why “Hobgoblin” appeals to audacious readers.
SUV: Did you get any mail from readers about the book when it first came out? What were their responses? What about now? Has the tone of reader response changed over the years?
JC: I have heard recently from fans of the book since it has been reissued. They had read the book when it came out and are happy to see the book back in print. At the time of its first publication in 1981, I did get a lot of mail (this was before emails) from readers. In fact, this novel generated more mail than any of my other novels. And almost all of the writers wanted to know where they could buy the board game.
SUV: You have been heavily involved in the Peace Corps. How did you juggle your writing career with your work in public service? Did one affect the other?
JC: I’m involved with the Peace Corps as a former volunteer. I do maintain a website: www.peacecorpsworldwide.org where I follow writers who were in the agency and try to link us all together. I believe that there is a literary genre which could be called “Peace Corps writing,” as we have many, many fine poets, novelists, and journalists, all who have written about their host country and been influenced by their service. My last novel, Long Ago & Far Away opens in the country where I was a volunteer, Ethiopia.
SUV: It occurred to me just now that fantasy and horror novels were (at the time) considered kind of frivolous; maybe even insidious. That has changed quite a bit over the last couple of decades. Dungeons & Dragons is an acceptable pastime, and books like the Harry Potter and Song of Ice and Fire series are big, big business. Was this change a factor in bringing a new edition of the book to market? How did all of this come together, and are you surprised to see a book from so many years back return to press?
JC: I am pleased that Dover has brought the book back to new readers with this new addition, and with a wonderful new jacket I want to note. Yes, the literary establishment in the early ’70s, wasn’t interested in fantasy or horror novels. I recall that when Stephen King’s Carrie was published, it wasn’t even reviewed in the New York Times.. That changed when the novel became an enormous best seller and since then Steve has had all of his books reviewed, and he even writes for magazines like The New Yorker.
It is not unusual for new ideas, like D&D, and new writers, to have to prove their value. Jo Heller’s Catch 22, for example, was turned down something like twenty-two times before it found a publisher and became a huge success. Why? Because his novel was a new way of looking at WWII and book editors, the gate keepers, were behind the times. Mostly these editor react. They don’t act.
SUV: Is there anything that you’d change if you were to write Hobgoblin today? Do you have anything to say to readers just discovering the book?
JC: The game would be different. It would, of course, be a video game and there would be more opportunities for more people to play the game virtually. As for reading it today. I think it is the same experience for most people, which is to say, the reader is trying to solve the puzzle of ‘who is Scott’ and ‘where is Scott? while enjoying the game that is in progress on the estate of Ballycastle, on the page, and in the mind and imagination of young Scott Gardiner. What is real and wasn’t isn’t?
SUV: What are you doing now? Where can people find you?
JC: I am still writing full time. As I said, recently published, Long Ago and Far Away, a love story/mystery set in Africa, Europe and the United States and covering forty years in the lives of two people. I also wrote what might be called a handbook on writing entitled, How To Write A Novel In 100 Days. Both are available from Amazon. And next year a collection of my short stories will be published.
I do enjoy hearing from readers and answering special questions that they might have about my novels. The best way to find me is with an email to jcoyneone AT gmail DOT com. You can also visit www.johncoynebooks.com