A Night in the Lonesome October: An homage to Lovecraftian, Victorian and Gothic fantasy

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsA Night in the Lonesome October by Roger ZelaznyA Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

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.

~Steven Harbin

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsA Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

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.

~Kelly Lasiter

Combine the bizarre and brilliant imagination of award-winning author Roger Zelazny with the macabre artistic genius of Gahan Wilson — stir in a pinch of dried bat wing, several drops of human blood, and a substantial dose of vintage Hollywood horror — and the result is a strong and savory brew that satisfy the soul, chill the blood and tickle the funnybone… in short, A Night in the Lonesome October. During a dank and damp autumn in the late 19th century, good dog Snuff loyally accompanies a mysterious knife-wielding gentleman named Jack on his midnight rounds through the murky streets of London – collecting the grisly ingredients needed for unearthly rite that will take place not long after the death of the moon. But Snuff and his master are not alone. All manner of participants, both human and undead, are gathering from Soho to Whitehall with their ancient tools and their animal familiars, in preparation of the dread night when black magic will summon the Elder Gods back to the world. Some have come to open the gates… an some to close them. It is brave, devoted Snuff who must calculate the patterns of the Game and keep track of the Players – the witch, the mad monk, the vengeful vicar, the Count who sleeps by day, the Good Doctor and the hulking Experiment Man he fashioned from body parts… and a wild-card American shapeshifter named Larry Talbot — all the while keeping ogres at bay, and staying a dog-leap ahead of the Great Detective, who knows quite a bit more than he lets on. Boldly original and wildly entertaining, A Night in the Lonesome October is a darkly sparkling gem — an amalgam of horror, humor, mystery and fantasy that is exactly what one would expect from the inspiredunion of two extraordinary talents.

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Guest reviewer STEVEN HARBIN is an educator who is currently a counselor at an alternative school. He was formerly a world history and literature teacher. He lives with several cats and dogs, two children, a loyal saint of a spouse, and a large number of books scattered all about his house. He discovered science fiction and fantasy in the 1960′s when his school librarian suggested he read the works of Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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  1. It’s going on my list!! Thanks, Steven!

  2. I’ll have you know, Steven, you just made a sale. :D

  3. sigh–one more to the list–great review. Sigh.

  4. Weird fun. I’ll have to search this one out.

    • Definitely shop around a bit. Everybody on Amazon is selling it for something like $50. It’s fun, but I don’t think it’s quite $50 worth of fun! :D But if your library has it or if you can find a more normal price, it’s amusing.

  5. Kelly, have you read much Zelazny and, if so, are you a fan? I should know this about you, but I don’t. I’m a fan so I’m trying to figure out, based on yours and Steven’s reviews, how hard I should look for this one.

    • This is the first novel of his I’ve read. Before that I read a short story or two. I’m not much of a Zelazny connoisseur as of yet.

      • Yeah, I can’t decide if he’s really your thing, but you liked this well enough to suggest that fans will definitely like it. As I write this, I see a Tweet over in the sidebar from a guy who I know is a fan and he says “One of my favorites by RZ” in response to the tweet about your review, so I think that’s a good sign.

  6. Great review Kelly! I agree one hundred percent regarding the subtlety of the narrative, you can miss a bit if not paying close attention.
    Regarding Zelazny, I always had mixed emotions regarding his work. I’d usually find I either couldn’t put one of his books down, such as “Jack of Shadows” or the short story “24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai.” Yet, the later Amber novels, for instance, just failed to hold my interest. In the main though, I think he was a great author.

  7. Mario Cosic /

    This novel s just in his style and I loved it. I took great enjoyment in figuring out the characters, but also in the way they inteacted.

    It’s what he does best, after all and I never really lose the interest in them.He’s my number one writer, may God bless his soul. The Amber series was his best, and followed by his Lord of Light.

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