This wonderful little tome was Roger Zelazny’s last book and I think it’s among his best, certainly one of his most enjoyable. The title comes from a line in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Ulalume,” which goes:
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year;
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir —
The story is told in first person present tense by Snuff, a dog who wanders the foggy October nights with a man named Jack. As the story progresses it becomes obvious that the setting is the late 1800s in Victorian England. The novel is divided into thirty-two chapters, one for each night of the month, along with an introduction chapter. As the month progresses and the story unfolds the reader begins to get a good idea of just who “Jack” is, along with a large cast of other characters who are never explicitly identified but who are probably familiar to anyone who has ever read mystery and horror set in the Victorian era. Among the cast are a “Count” who never appears by day, a “Great Detective” who has a penchant for disguises, a “Mad Monk,” a “Good Doctor” who has created an “Experiment Man,” and an American by the name of Larry Talbot, whose name may be familiar to any lover of 1930’s and 40’s Hollywood monster movies.
The premise of the book is that every few decades, when there is a full moon on Halloween night, the portal between our world and that of H. P. Lovecraft’s CTHULHU MYTHOS is in a position to be accessed. Various “players” come together for a ritual that will either open the portal, letting in the dangerous deities therein, or close the portal, keeping them out until the next time the opening would again be possible. Each of the players in this “Great Game” follows the ancient game’s established rules and jockeys for position for the ultimate night’s contest. Snuff is the aforementioned Jack’s animal familiar and it turns out that each of the other players also has an animal familiar, who assists its player in his or her attempt to close or open the demonic gate. As the novel progresses, the reader learns more about each of the various players and their familiars, through the eyes of Snuff, who we learn has been a familiar in previous games.
A Night in the Lonesome October is a lot of fun, as Snuff and Jack explore Victorian London and interact with the other players. Perhaps my favorite scene occurs when Snuff actually visits what appears to be the dream world that Lovecraft described in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath in the company of a cat familiar whose mistress is also a player in the game.
An additional feature of the book is that it was illustrated by Gahan Wilson, whose Gothic macabre humorous cartoons have been featured in periodicals as diverse as Playboy, The New Yorker, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The illustrations precede each chapter and lend the perfect atmosphere to the story as it progresses.
I actually put off this book for years, even with friends telling me I would truly love it. Now that I’ve finally read it, I have two major regrets. One, that I didn’t read it earlier, and two, that no sequel was ever written regarding the next Great Game, which Wikipedia states occurred on October 31, 1925. The fact that we are all still here implies that the openers lost out in that one, but I would still have loved to see what happened on that occurrence of the “Great Game.” Since I can’t read about that, however, I’ll just have to make a point of re-reading A Night in the Lonesome October again soon, and not wait decades to do so.