Hobgoblin, by John Coyne
This horror novel from 1981 focuses on Scott Gardiner, a young man obsessed by a role-playing game called “Hobgoblin” based on Irish mythology. Affected by the simultaneous unexpected death of his father and the “death” of his RPG character, Scott retreats into the game, finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish fantasy from reality. The process accelerates when his mother takes a job as curator at an authentic Irish castle imported to America. Strange things begin happening, leading Scott to believe real hobgoblins and other supernatural creatures haunt the castle.
Finding good horror books is as hard as finding a good comedy, mostly because getting the mix right is always difficult. Few manage to be successful because too many things can go wrong. “Hobgoblin” is an effort to fuse the horror novel with the seldom used “problem” novel genre that starts off with a good premise and an interesting opening, especially when it suggests that Scott may not be imagining things. As long as the reader remains in doubt about whether or not what Scott sees is real, the story entertains and the reader keeps turning pages despite some obvious flaws. The story is most effective when the reader believes the supernatural element is real. The best chills comes in those moments.
The first half of the book is well done, with several nice moments of suspense and some nicely done prose, though the characters and their personalities grate almost from the start. Scott in particular is an unlikeable protagonist. He comes across as a parody of a nerd crossed with a typical rebellious teen with few redeeming qualities and very little real development. You want to smack him for his attitude and wrongheadedness. For example, Scott treats Valerie Dunn, his girlfriend, so rudely it is a wonder she puts up with him, especially considering how hard she works to “save” him. (Gender stereotypes are in full flower in this book, dating it badly, perhaps a reason why Valerie and Scott's mother do not fair well in the character department.) Even Scott's two suicide attempts seem without genuine weight because the reader has so little invested in him. The rest of characters are two-dimensional. The kids who bully Scott at school are stereotypical jocks. Valerie in particular is more of a sketch than a person, contributing little to the plot beyond serving as Scott's girlfriend and the damsel in distress. Only the groundskeeper, Conor, manages to come to life. Some of the best scenes of the book stem from his rambling narration of past events on the mansion grounds. He is the real joy of reading the first half of the book.
One serious problem with the book is its portrayal of role-playing games. In fact, the novel is infamous for its slanted take on RPGs. The author clearly staked out “fantasy gaming is bad!” as the moral of his story (the book came out at the height of the dungeons & dragons craze and the backlash against it). The ending heavily pushes that meme: abandoning gaming leads to Scott becoming a functioning, mature adult. While Coyne clearly did some research on RPGs, getting some of the technical details right, the condescension is hard to miss and insulting.
The moment the story abandons any pretense to the supernatural, it wears thin. Plot holes emerge, some the size of small trucks. Because the characters never really fleshed out into solid people, the flaws become harder to ignore. The last quarter of the book switches gears and becomes a generic slasher story set on Halloween night – which could have worked if the true villain had not been so unexpected and his motive for going on a sudden murder spree so murky. Part of it is that by last half the reader pretty much realizes Scott exaggerates what he sees because of his delusions; the real threat proves to be mundane and nowhere near as interesting as if real hobgoblins such as the Black Annis actually stalked the grounds. The dispelling of any supernatural elements may be part of the moral of the story, but it is a real letdown for the reader expecting or wanting more because Scott and his problems, by itself, is not enough to carry the story.
My review seems harsh. The reason stems from the expectations raised in the first half of the book, the lack of three dimensional characters, the snobbish attitude toward gamers and nerds, and a by-the-numbers finish that strives a bit too hard to make a point. It remains an above average horror story for all that. As long as the reader doesn't demand much from it, the book is an entertaining read. Just not a classic and, despite what some other reviewers claim, definitely not a young adult novel. I really wanted to like this book, but the problems outweighed the good points.