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

A 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.

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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  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.


  1. Sunday Status Update: January 13, 2012 | Fantasy Literature: Fantasy and Science Fiction Book and Audiobook Reviews - [...] the strength of Steven’s review, I’m reading A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny. It’s very odd and [...]
  2. A Night in the Lonesome October: An odd little book | Fantasy Literature: Fantasy and Science Fiction Book and Audiobook Reviews - [...] be for everyone — I’m not even sure it’s exactly for me! I didn’t like it quite as much …

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