Friday, June 4, 2010

John Coyne, The Legacy (1979)

Coyne, John. The Legacy. New York: Berkley, 1979.

The Legacy at Goodreads
The Legacy at IBList
Rating: 7/10

Former horror and current golf author John Coyne wrote The Legacy early in his fiction writing career, and it helped establish him among the ranks of best-selling young American horror authors of the period, such as Peter Straub and Stephen King. While the novel was a best-seller and Coyne did pen some other successful horror books, most notably Hobgoblin (1981), he never reached the heights of Straub or King and his name is not well recognized today. Though regarded generally as a good craftsman who has written horror, literary fiction and a number of non-fiction works, as well as a marketable commodity, it is odd that Coyne did not reach greater heights, nor maintained the height he did achieve. In his introduction to the 1983 anthology The Dodd Mead Gallery of Horror, writer and editor Charles L. Grant honours Coyne by referring to him as "one of the most gifted and literary writers."

The Legacy is a novelization of the 1978 movie of the same title, directed by Richard Marquand (best known for Return of the Jedi) with story and screenplay by Jimmy Sangster. It tells the story of six people invited to Ravenhurst, a remote estate in rural England. They are brought together by the mysterious and wealthy Jason Mountolive, yet while five are familiar with Mountolive and the reason for the gathering, the novel's protagonist, Maggie Walsh, along with her partner Pete Danner, believe they have been recruited from California for an architectural project. The story is a combination of murder mystery along the lines of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, and dark demonic fantasy.

Though it is lacking in some areas, the book is an enjoyable and quick read. The writing is strong and suits the work: it is straightforward and clear, nothing intrusive, simply well constructed prose that allows character, setting and plot to function on their own merits. The characters are recognizable caricatures, but so well delineated that their stock qualities work nicely with the story. The dialogue is strong and the interaction between the diverse members of the gathering worked particularly well. The setting is so clearly rendered that while reading the entire landscape appeared before my mind's eye. There are some grey areas in plotting and resolution, but personally I like my fiction with a little grey. Everything spelled out would eliminate much of the story's required obscurity. Of course many of these elements are likely the result of having to follow the film's screenplay, but regardless are a part of the completed text.

My only real problem with the book is the climax (some spoilers ahead).
 I did not care for the final showdown with Jacques Grandier. In fact, I did not fully understand it. Grandier was not behind the killings at Mountolive's estate, and I figure he is attacking Maggie and Pete because he believes they are the one's responsible for the recent deaths, and hence believes he is defending himself. Yet there was something odd about Grandier walking the plank of the roof (so to speak) in that I could not imagine him being so lithe and athletic. It does not help that someone who was such a great marksman with bow and arrow cannot shoot a couple of people with a shotgun. Perhaps because the book is so visual yet we are never given a clear image of Grandier on the rooftop that the action appears to be playing out in a kind of fog.

The resolution is fairly well anticipated but this does not weaken the reading. The reader has by now pieced the somewhat grey pieces together and understands what will happen to Maggie, though Pete's fate (a minor point) remains unclear until the very end.

The horror elements are good, with some truly creepy moments. There are some standard, all-too-familiar moments alongside the original creepiness. The book manages to fuse the Gothic clichés with the modern elements, just as it fuses classic rural England with the hip 1979 yuppie Californian couple. In fact there is a nice blend of the classic mystery and Gothic with the rising modern horror genre of the 1970s & 1980s. Perhaps if this book were published only a few years earlier, before Coyne's contemporaries were able to steal the market and establish themselves as horror's forerunners, Coyne would have met with greater success and left a stronger... legacy.

I have not com
e across the 1978 movie version of The Legacy and have not heard of it before finding the book, despite a somewhat familiar cast including Katherine Ross, Sam Elliott and Who founder Roger Daltry, and the fact that I do enjoy a good horror movie. Reviews I have managed to find seem unanimous in preferring the novelization over the movie, and in fact while the book was a best-seller the movie essentially flopped. If I do get the opportunity to see the film I will add an addendum here, but I won't be rushing around to search for it. Instead I will pick up a copy of Hobgoblin, Coyne's most famous horror novel and the only one available at my local library.

I came across this book in a discard bin at a book fair and promptly saved it, and other mass market paperbacks, from the fate of being recycled (or nabbed up by someone else). It was my first time encountering the name John Coyne, and it took me a few years to actually read it, mostly because of that cheesy cover (I have the first Berkley edition from 1979, the smaller cover shot just above; the larger one at the top is of a 1980 reprinting). The cover features the white cat that appears at ominous moments in the book and no doubt the movie as well, and the gnarled hand of Jason Mountolive. I started reading it because the synopsis at the back caught my eye; I've always been a sucker for small groups of people disappearing or dying off one by one, everything from
And There Were None to movies like The Thing and Alien. While the cover nearly had me placing the book in a donation bin, the back cover saved it and I think I will hang onto this copy for the time being.

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