Novel November

A Night in the Lonesome October

by Roger Zelazny

Reading Review by Michael Channing

A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

This is a horror novel. Except it's very funny at times. It's a mystery, though we don't care exactly who committed the murder. It's a monster tale, but get this, the monsters are the good guys. The Wolfman and Jack the Ripper are on the same side, and we want them both to succeed. It's a tough thing for a novel to make you root for Jack the Ripper, but this one does it.

Jack and Larry Talbot are among a group of occultists preparing for a world-changing event on October 31. The chapters start at October 1 and continue day by day as they prepare for the big night. They seek and trade ingredients for spells, forge and betray alliances, set, change, and scrap plans as the moon wanes and waxes and the date of destiny slowly approaches.

But the people are not the main characters. Zelazny makes the unique and risky choice of telling the story through the eyes and actions of their animal companions, often referred to in occult lore as familiars. The narrator is a dog, companion of Jack. The dog’s name is Snuff, and he’s loyal and dedicated to both Jack and the Game, which is what the participants call the ritual and its related preparations. Other players include a witch named Jill, a mad monk, a druid, the Count (you know the one), and the Good Doctor and his Invented Man (you know who they are, too). But again, they are secondary characters to the story we see. We follow Snuff as he meets, befriends, bargains with, and battles companions of the human and humanoid players. Those companions include a black cat (the witch’s companion, naturally), a snake, a rat, an owl, and even a squirrel. They are all equal participants in the Game, trading information to give to their people, gathering spell ingredients, hiding bodies. The tricky part is in getting us to accept the animals as protagonists and identify with their struggles.

I admit this might not work for everyone, but it did for me. The story unfolds rather slowly, doling out details on an as-needed basis. The players of the Game, as well as the game's ultimate goal, are unknown for quite a while. In fact, a lot is left for the reader to piece together. This is a book that plays its cards close to the chest and does not answer all the questions it raises. This can be extremely frustrating, but it feels to me that Zelazny is deliberately rewarding those readers who have already done the research and steeped themselves in Hollywood horror, Sherlock Holmes, Lovecraft, Ripperology, and even a bit of Victorian era history. You don't need to have that much knowledge to enjoy the book, but it will heighten the experience. As to the unanswered mysteries the story hints at, I, for one, am willing to let them go. There are a couple of mentions of curses that are never explained. Yes I would love some more background, just as I would like know more of what happens to the surviving cast after the final page, but that is ultimately not something I need to know. That was always Lovecraft’s draw, the allusion to knowledge man was not meant to know, the vague references to past events he had no intention of illuminating. The same thing is happening here. The unrevealed informs the story, just as the pauses in music underscore the sounds around them.

The unusual mixture of genres may also be off-putting to some. The shifts from light-hearted comedy to drab realism to fantastical horror can take place without warning. That makes it difficult to maintain any kind of suspense, especially when each chapter is a complete day of action with no cliffhangers or mid-scene breaks. But the shambling approach is meant to keep you off guard and to keep secret what the book is about until just the right moment. As I said, the game is not explained till late in the book, though clues are dropped here and there, again to reward readers with the right foreknowledge. When was the last time you read a book or watched a movie where you couldn’t anticipate the beats? You might not have know what plot points were going to be revealed, but you certainly knew NOW was the time for one to jump out from behind the oncoming corner. There are certain genres that follow the same plan of premise, setup, punchline every single go-round without fail. You know the guy and girl who hate each other in the first act will be in love at the final curtain. You know that the dude who only shows up during one early scene in a mystery will turn out to be the killer in the end. But this book refuses to follow a pattern, other than to raise the stakes steadily as the climax approaches. But even then, because our beastial focal characters have habits and needs we’re not accustomed to, it’s hard to say exactly how much the stakes are being raised each time.

Zelazny is trying to use familiar building blocks to construct an alien tower. And then he looks at it from low angles, through a dog’s eyes. No, it doesn’t work perfectly, and it can’t possibly please everyone. But I will not fault the guy for trying. It’s an incredible thing to behold, crooked architecture and uneven floors, shortened hallways, with a view out into a vast and beautiful cosmos. It’s dangerous. It’s laughable. It’s alluring. Come on up. The first few steps are easy.

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November 16, 2017