During the entire month of October, in the late 1800s, in a year when the full moon falls on Halloween, strange forces gather in a village outside of London. Various iconic characters ― who will be familiar to fans of Victorian literature and classic horror movies ― create shifting alliances, gather herbs, instruments of power and the odd eyeball and femur, and prepare for a mystery-shrouded event that will take place on Halloween night.
A Night in the Lonesome October (1993) is narrated by the aptly-named Snuff, a dog who is the familiar of a man named Jack. Snuff is more than just a dog; at the beginning of the novel he comments cryptically, “I like being a watchdog better than what I was before he summoned me and gave me this job.” Snuff helps Jack gather ingredients for Halloween night, keeps an watchful eye on various cursed Things trapped in Jack’s house, and draws lines between the houses of the various players to create a diagram that will help him and Jack in their planning for … whatever it is that will happen on Halloween.
Snuff also cautiously communicates with other animals in the neighborhood: Quicklime, a black snake belonging to a mad monk named Rastov; Graymalk the cat, who is the familiar of a witch called Crazy Jill; a rat named Bubo who lives with a man called the “Good Doctor”; Needle, a bat who associates with the Count; and others. Snuff explains that it’s complicated at the beginning of the month because he has no way of knowing whether these people and their familiars are “openers” or “closers.” What openers and closers are remains mysterious until much later in the story, but it’s clear it’s at the root of the great Game they are playing and the ultimate contest to occur between the players on Halloween night. Meanwhile, the Great Detective lurks about the area with his companion, occasionally donning disguises in the course of his investigation (which don’t fool Snuff, of course).
A Night in the Lonesome October is creepy yet humorous, gruesome and witty at the same time. One of the highlights is a grave-robbing scene in which several players spend an evening gathering ingredients, with various bodily parts flying through the air in a macabre game of catch:
“Eyeballs, anyone?” came a call.
“Over here,” said someone with a Russian accent. “One of them, please.”
“I’ll have the other,” came an aristocratic voice from the opposite direction.
“Either of you got a couple of floating ribs, or a pair of kidneys?”
“Down here, on the kidneys!” came a new voice. “And I’m in need of a patella!”
“Oh? No problem.…”
Roger Zelazny cheerfully hides identities and key plot points from his readers during the early part of the Game, allowing us to work out for ourselves who and what they are, whether they’re working for good or evil, and what exactly is going down on Halloween night. The Count and the Great Detective are fairly easy, Jack and the Good Doctor probably won’t take a whole lot longer, and Larry Talbot reveals himself fairly early on (even if you’re not already familiar with his name). But most of the others will take more puzzling out. Fans of A Night in the Lonesome October, which has developed a cult following, devote entire web pages to analyzing the identities of and inspirations for various minor characters (you should check these pages out only after you’ve finished the book, as they’re riddled with spoilers). It was delightful to read and unpack all the layers of meaning hidden in the text. Any book that reveals more and more layers and depth and connections, as you reread and analyze it, gets a large rating boost from me. I’ll freely admit that it brought back the best of my memories of deep discussions in college English lit courses.
The characterization is excellent. Minor characters like the Count and the Great Detective shine in their limited but key scenes, surprising us at key turns. Snuff, despite his intelligence and sense of humor, remains intrinsically a dog in his nature and concerns. His gradually developing alliance and even friendship with the cat Graymalk reminded me of the relationship between my own family’s Siamese mix cat and Labrador retriever. Snuff’s master Jack is intelligent and kind but is also, Snuff explains, “under a curse from long ago and must do much of his work at night to keep worse things from happening.” Jack and Snuff get along very well.
I took Jack his slippers this evening and lay at his feet before a roaring fire while he smoked his pipe, sipped sherry, and read the newspaper. He read aloud everything involving killings, arsons, mutilations, grave robberies, church desecrations, and unusual thefts. It is very pleasant just being domestic sometimes.
There’s a longstanding rumor (which, as far as I can tell, has never been confirmed) that A Night in the Lonesome October arose out of a bet someone made with Zelazny that he couldn’t write a story where readers would root for Jack the Ripper. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a reader who would claim Zelazny lost that bet.
There are 31 chapters in A Night in the Lonesome October, one for each day in October. It’s great pulpy fun, but with an underlying intelligence and dry humor. I can see why reading A Night in the Lonesome October has become an annual October ritual for so many fans! Anyone care to join me next year?
A Night in the Lonesome October is an odd little book. It’s a mashup of H.P. Lovecraft, Sherlock Holmes, Victorian horror, monster movies, and dry humor, from the point of view of a dog. It’s definitely worth the read if you like pastiche-style horror. It’s written in a weird style and it won’t be for everyone — I’m not even sure it’s exactly for me! I didn’t like it quite as much as Tadiana did, but I did have fun reading it and found its style unique and intriguing.
The best way I can think of to describe A Night in the Lonesome October is that a huge amount of it takes place between the lines. This works well for some aspects of the book, and less well for others. Many of the famous characters Roger Zelazny draws upon are never explicitly named, but instead are left to the reader to identify (some are easy; a few I didn’t recognize at all). Zelazny largely eschews dialogue tags, leading to long stretches of dialogue in which a reader can easily get lost; you may find yourself flipping back to the beginning of the conversation and counting lines to figure out who’s speaking. Almost all the violence is faded to black, which is a good thing in that it keeps the mood from getting too heavy (and keeps some characters from becoming too unsympathetic — more on that below). London is drawn in faint lines, which is a little disappointing; a meatier sense of place would have enhanced the novel.
Emotion is tucked between the lines too. There are friendships here that are deeply moving, but you have to look to characters’ actions to find them, because the characters won’t ever admit to these attachments out loud but will instead pretend to be acting in pure self-interest. It’s a very subtle book and hides that behind a deceptively simple manner of writing befitting a canine narrator. You definitely have to pay attention to it.
Snuff is our canine protagonist (though it is hinted that he is more than an ordinary dog). He is the familiar of a man named Jack who wanders the streets of London with a really big knife. (It’s a little hard to root for Jack, being who he is, but Zelazny mitigates that by telling the story via the lovable Snuff, by keeping the violence offscreen, and by another factor that is explained midway through the book.) Jack is one of many players in a Game that takes place every time the full moon falls on Halloween. On such nights, a portal can be opened between our world and that of the Lovecraftian gods. Every player chooses a side, either striving to open the portal or to keep it shut. The game’s players are drawn from various literary and cinematic sources, and most players have an animal familiar. These familiars spy, trade information, and develop relationships that are poignant because the Game will almost certainly come between them eventually. The tale unfolds over the course of October and ends on Halloween night.
As for this ending, it’s abrupt. You can tell the story is winding down but you don’t expect it to screech to a halt right when it does. Yet there is much about it that’s satisfying; Zelazny throws in a few surprises and works out the central Gordian knot in an unexpected way.
If you enjoy pulp horror and B movies and dry humor, you definitely want to check out A Night in the Lonesome October. It can be a pain to find at a reasonable price (try alibris — that’s where I got it — or your local library), and it requires your concentration once you’ve got it, but it’s fun. A Night in the Lonesome October also includes suitably weird illustrations by Gahan Wilson.