Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
John Coyne is the author of more than twenty-eight nonfiction and fiction books, including a number of horror novels, and his short stories have been collected in “best of” anthologies such as Modern Masters of Horror and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.
His publisher, Cemetery Dance Publications, specializes in horror and dark suspense and includes Stephen King and Ann Rice in its list of authors. That gives you an idea of the high caliber of Coyne’s writing style and limitless imagination. A Game in the Sun is a collection of stories that he has written over a number of years from college days (“The Crazy Chinaman”) to one written last year about Catholic guilt. He has also written and edited books on golf, including The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan, The Caddie Who Played With Hickory, and The Caddie Who Won the Masters. One of his most recent books is the love story Long Ago and Far Away set in Ethiopia.
After graduating from Saint Louis University, he earned a master’s in English at Western Michigan University, served in the Air Force, and served in the Peace Corps from 1962 to 1964, teaching English at the Commercial School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He currently lives in Pelham Manor, New York where he edits Peace Corps Worldwide, and continues to write.
https://peacecorpsworldwide.org/innocence-melts-obstinacy/John and I go way back. When I was a PCV in Senegal and Peace Corps Worldwide was Peace Corps Writers & Readers, In 1997 I won the Moritz Thomsen prize for best short story. After I returned home, I stayed in touch with John and his colleague, Marian Haley Beil, as I wrote my PC memoir, Roller Skating in the Desert, and later a memoir of Haiti with a PC imprint. I met John and Marian at the National Peace Corps Conferences in Chicago and in Washington, D.C. I also had the honor of being invited to the Library of Congress by John where Peace Corps writers were hosted by Senator John Garamendi (Ethiopia 1966-68) for a luncheon and we met the Librarian of Congress to celebrate the creation of a Peace Corps books collection in the Library. I’ve had the enjoyable opportunity to review books for Peace CorpsWorldwide, and to have my own reviewed, thanks to John and Marian. They have not only established an historical collection of Peace Corps writings, but have encouraged and assisted countless PCVs to write their precious memoirs.
During all these years I was aware that John wrote books about golf, a subject I didn’t pay much attention to as golf is outside my realm of interests. I never knew that he is an acclaimed master writer of horror stories! My surprise and delight in reading A Game in the Sun was total.
John is a master of the first sentence “hook.” In A Game in the Sun I was drawn into each story by the first line or paragraph. For example, “When Marc entered the classroom, “peace corps go home” had already been written on the blackboard. Thus begins “Snow Man” ironically set in Ethiopia.
“The Crazy Chinaman” opens with “Afterwards Pete wished they had never said anything to him, but of course by then it was too late.” We immediately wonder what will happen to the small Philippine country club worker who is fatally taunted by caddies.
“The Devil You Know” begins with these intriguing words: “It began with Father Sweeney leaning into Matt’s face, with both hands braced against the desk, speaking in his deliberately condescending way, telling Matt once, and then again … that he wanted what Matt Garrity was hiding between his legs and he wanted it now!” I won’t divulge what Matt had between his legs, but suffice to say it was magical. This is one of John’s stories that reveal his bitterness towards abusive Irish Catholic priests, and deals with the issue of power versus morality.
“A Cabin the Woods” could be a Hitchcock film, the dark enemy being a creeping fungus.
In “Catholic Guilt” the protagonist, Nolan, takes revenge upon priests who abused girls, including his beloved sister, by tracking the that priest down and brutally castrating him. In “The Enemy” the protagonist sees in a Catholic college student “ … the corrupting force lurking behind the façade of religion.”
In the story A Game in the Sun that gives the book its title, Betsy, a Peace Corps Volunteer in an African outpost, counts the days — “eighteen more Sundays” — before she can leave the rainforest where she was assigned with her husband, Jesse, whom she has grown to detest. She also can’t abide a smug missionary couple who befriended them and invites them to play croquet on their manicured lawn on Sundays. Betsy and Mrs. Shaw are not allowed to play, and Jesse never wins against Reverend Shaw. Betsy perceives her husband’s losses as a manifestation of his innate weakness. Betsy is feverish, nauseous and filled with loathing of the steaming jungle, her sweaty husband and their primitive living conditions. “ … her eyes locked on a small patch of wall where a chunk of dung had swollen and the whitewash had peeled away, like a scab.” She sleeps, exhausted, through days when she should be teaching school with Jesse. “Every morning, after Jesse left for school, she would wrap herself in a robe and, wearing boots, slip and slide through the mud to the outhouse and throw up whatever little she had eaten into the deep, smelly pit.” Mrs. Shaw suspect she’s “with child,” and becomes solicitous in a smarmy way that Betsy abhors as much as the sweet baby lotion smell of the woman. On the following Sunday she commands Jesse to win the croquet game. “I’m sick of going out there, week after week, talking to that old woman, watching you get beaten.” The day comes, however, and Betsy looks on as Jesse loses to the Reverend once again. In an hallucinatory moment, Betsy grabs the garden shears and “… came wildly down the soft slope, her face flaming with rage. They dropped the mallets glanced at each other as if there was some mistake, raised their hands, but she had reached them with the shears.”
Coyne has the rare ability to write convincingly from a woman’s point of view. I’ve often marveled at the outrageous imagination of presumably sane writers of the horror genre. I wonder if their wives ever cast trepidation glances at them.
Even in a three-page story, John creates a suspenseful premise, an arc that breaks from reality, and a shocking conclusion. He writes from inside the mind of deranged characters, taking the reader through labyrinths of insanity as in “Flight” where the central character believes he has electrodes in his nose. “I felt oddly reassured that someone was monitoring me, looking after me, almost like, you know, an angel.”
These stories are not bedtime reading. I tried it and was so haunted by lugubrious passages that I couldn’t sleep.
The book cover is beautiful, with the black silhouette of a woman’s head and shoulders in profile against an African night sky, and inside her head a storm rages in purple hues with sharp white lightning bolts.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to personally discover a great talent in a man who has been my mentor for many years. I closed the book reluctantly, so enthralled with John Coyne’s writing that I may have to read one of his golf books.
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon, as well as several travel memoirs.(amazon.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). Leita received the Lillian Carter Award in 2017.