The Legacy

Back in June, when I came across a used hardcover copy of John Coyne’s out of print novelization of the film The Legacy in a bookstore in Cape May, New Jersey, I was extremely excited to read it. Coyne was a prolific and popular horror writer in the 1970s and ’80s, but I’d never read his work before. Also, The Legacy is one of those movies I have a sense of nostalgia for, not because it’s a great film, but because I first saw it as a kid in the 1980s on Commander USA’s Groovie Movies, and Commander USA shaped my taste in movies more than I usually care to admit.

Alas, it didn’t take me longer than the first chapter to realize this novel wasn’t going to be revelatory experience I was hoping for. For one thing, I was immediately struck by the out of date, borderline offensive gender representations on display. Maggie Walsh, our heroine, is supposed to be an accomplished architect, but instead she’s introduced as someone who uses flirtation and eyelash-batting to get her way. Her boyfriend, Pete Danner, finds this annoying, but at the same time, of course, he can’t resist it. Also, he knows, just knows deep down in his soul, that it is his strength that gives her confidence. This isn’t presented as an interior character thought, something Pete tells himself in order to feel good about their relationship. No, it’s presented as fact, and comes to fruition in the numerous scenes where Maggie clutches Pete in a panic and begs him to tell her everything will be all right. Which he invariably does. In fact, the only time in their relationship when Pete isn’t being dismissive of her concerns so he can be the rock she clings to, the only time Maggie is given even a shred of power, is when another character asks Pete why he hasn’t married her, and he replies, “She hasn’t asked me yet.”

They also have sex every thirty or forty pages, like clockwork, regardless of what’s happening in the story, including blatant attempts on their lives. Why spend one second figuring out who’s trying to kill you or what you can do about it when you can just ride the bologna pony instead? The sex, of course, is mind-blowing, and Coyne makes sure to describe Maggie’s boobs to us. Author, author!

For those not familiar with the book or film, The Legacy is basically a classic reading-of-the-will, and-then-there-were-none story, only with supernatural overtones. After roughly ninety pages where very little occurs, Maggie and Pete find themselves in the sprawling British mansion of the mysterious, immensely wealthy, and terminally ill Jason Mountolive, along with a gaggle of rich assholes who owe everything they have to Mountolive as their benefactor. Mountolive promises to pass on his estate to all of them to share equally, including the perpetually confused Maggie, except someone is knocking off the beneficiaries first, presumably because they don’t want to share. The killings themselves aren’t very scary. I mean, someone dies, so they’re scary that way, I guess, but there’s no sense of dread to them, no feeling that anyone could be next. One character drowns in a swimming pool. Another chokes on a chicken bone. If you were telling this as a ghost story to kids around a campfire, they would have taken out their smart phones by now and started playing Angry Birds.

It’s tempting to decide from this one reading experience that John Coyne isn’t a writer worth reading, but then I remind myself that this is a novelization of someone else’s film script. Coyne’s own original work might be leagues ahead. On the other hand, even Dean Koontz, who is not exactly the Nabokov of popular fiction, managed to make his novelization of Tobe Hooper’s 1981 horror movie The Funhouse a decent enough read on its own, going so far as to deviate significantly from the film so that the story made more sense. So it’s not like it can’t be done. Still, I don’t think I’ll be picking up another John Coyne novel anytime soon. If I wanted to read awkward sex scenes every thirty pages and gratuitous descriptions of female characters’ boobs, I’d still be reading Piers Anthony.

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