Late 19th century. Strange doings and stranger neighbors make a quiet
village outside London a mysterious and dangerous place. There is
Crazy Jill, who talks to her cat and prefers a broom for transport.
The Good Doctor, recently arrived from Europe to continue his
scientific studies, animates a shambling Experiment Man. There is the
Count. The druid. The mad monk. Even Snuff, faithful watchdog to his
master Jack, may be more than he seems.
Snuff narrates the peculiar progress of this month of October, when
the full moon rises on Halloween. Day by day the Great Game evolves.
The players trade information, collect their tools and ingredients,
make moves to help or hinder opponents. On Halloween night they will
gather to open a gate between worlds, or to keep that gate closed.
Only the victors will walk away.
Snuff and Jack have done this before and they know: October is a
A Night in the Lonesome October is a very nearly perfect mix
of mystery, suspense, fantasy, and horror. Yes, Roger Zelazny wrote
it as an adult novel, but there no reason why intelligent teenagers
can't enjoy it, too. And if teenagers are going to read ahead into
these genres anyway, they may as well read something good.
Zelazny draws on a wide variety of literary sources to create his
Game. It is no small tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, a horror writer of
the early twentieth century, whose Elder Gods Zelazny poises to come
through that opened gate. The title itself comes from a line in Edgar
Allan Poe's poem "Ulalume." Zelazny borrows some characters from
recognizable sources: Mary Shelley, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram
Stoker; others are legend archetypes. A reader could spend a long
time identifying all the literary allusions. One episode ends,
bizarrely, with lines taken from Edna St. Vincent Millay. (While you
don't have to be a mystery or fantasy or horror buff to enjoy
Lonesome October, there is admittedly an added level of
pleasure for every clever reference you do recognize.)
The Game progresses in a masterful presentation. Zelazny has the
double task of not only describing the bit-by-bit sleuthing of Snuff
and the other characters working on this Game, but also
revealing the Game itself to the reader. He contrives a legitimate
reason, toward the very end, to explain the basics, in case readers
have missed or misunderstood any particular nuance.
The book is illustrated, one picture per chapter, by Gahan Wilson in
a way few novels for adults (or young adults, for that matter) are
these days. I'm not always sure that Wilson catches the spirit of
Zelazny's story; Snuff is rather disappointing, and you never do get
a good view of Jack. But then I look at the sketch on the back cover
(hardcover version) - recognizable caricatures of Zelazny and Wilson
himself as Holmes and Watson - and I know he did.
It is also worth mentioning the front cover illustration, a painting
by James Warhola. It shows a relaxed get-together of all the
characters in the book: a cocktail party, perhaps, or a cast party
after closing night. This is not a scene that ever happened, or even
one that could have happened, and yet there is no question that it
completely catches the spirit of the novel. They sit or chat in
little groups. Mad Rastov delivers an impassioned speech to an amused
Jill. The Experiment Man looks doubtfully at a tiny hors d'oeuvre,
while the Vicar's teenaged daughter hangs adoringly on his arm. Front
and foremost, the Count and Jack (it must be Jack, because the Great
Detective is present in obvious disguise) engage in conversation.
Unhappy Larry Talbot sits alone. Snuff and the animal companions are
all present too, with the exception of Needle, who is unfortunately
obscured by the lettering of the title. (I have had occasion to see
this painting without the title block.)
A Night in the Lonesome October is among the best of Roger
Zelazny's long career. I have read it every October (day by day, of
course) without fail since its publication in 1993. I had the good
fortune to hear Zelazny read it in person to an audience before its
publication. It is also available, read by Zelazny and unabridged, as
an audiobook from Sunset Productions.
Roger Zelanzy died in 1995.
Dust jacket illustration by James Warhola.
by Wendy Morris. © 2001
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