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 Steven 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.