Mining the Genre Asteroid: A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

13 Nov

Snuff is a loyal and faithful watchdog* — preternaturally intelligent. He helps Saucy Jack, a good and kind master. In Victorian London in October 1887, there will be a full moon on Halloween. A full moon on Halloween is a special event (which occurs about every 15-20 years on average), for then the Door can be opened and the Elder Gods let back into the world. Jack is a group of one of the individuals, Openers and Closers, striving during this October to gather the tools to decide whether the Door will finally be opened this time and change the world for all. The Great Game is afoot!

Snuff’s master, though, is not any friendly guy named Jack, but rather he is a certain famous Jack best known to history for killing prostitutes in Whitechapel.

And he is a Closer.51mk3g4IdUL

Welcome to A Night in the Lonesome October, the final solo novel completed by Roger Zelazny.

The high concept of A Night in the Lonesome October is the ultimate horror team-up/crossover novel. Jack the Ripper is but one of the Openers and Closers, and figuring out (with us strictly in Snuff’s point of view throughout) who the other individuals are is part of the joy of reading the novel for the first time. It is a who’s who of horror and Victorian famous characters and archetypes and ideas. Watching Zelazny describe and manipulate them is part of the joy of re-reading the novel.

The novel, after a prologue, is composed of 31 daily chapters in Snuff’s diary.  The action of the novel comes at a remove, as each of the Openers and Closers has an animal companion along the lines of Snuff. These animal companions form a relationship web that reflects (and sometimes not so much) the relationship web between the various Openers and Closers.  Whether one is an Opener or a Closer is a secret (and something gauche to admit), and so there is a delightful chess game of manipulations, moves and counter moves between the various players in the Great Game.

It’s a novel full of allusions, puns, wordplay, and humor that ranges from the droll to the laugh out loud funny. Zelazny is not an author one thinks of when it comes to comedy, although some of his later work, like this novel, does make good use of comedy. The novel is frothy and light for being about the possible end of the world.

A Night in the Lonesome October, being a blend of so many characters and antecedents, is in itself not a direct inspiration for novels and stories since its writing — more the pity. However, Elizabeth Bear’s Blood and Iron makes different but also similarly significant use of a full moon on a Halloween for her own dark fantasy. The novel does herald a rehabilitation and repurposing of some of the ideas of Lovecraft that one can see in (again) Bear’s work, or, say, Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald. Mike Underwood’s The Younger Gods, with Eldritch cultists, werewolves, Loas, witches, Nephilim and more running around New York City feels like a spiritual successor in some ways as well.

The book has been out of print for years, which has tempered my recommendation of it to others for a long time. Happily, now that it has been recently republished (complete with the original illustrations!), it is a wonderful introduction to Roger Zelazny’s work, demonstrating what he was truly capable of as an author. It may not be as significant as, say, Lord of Light, or as extensive as the Amber chronicles, or as mythic as Creatures of Light and Darkness, but a one volume taste of what Zelazny could and did do? This fits the bill; now, going forward, it is my standing recommendation for people interested in trying his work.

Finally, A Night in the Lonesome October is a perfect fall read (there are groups who read one chapter a day during October). And I can see the rationale for doing that, since this is not a novel to rush through, but to savor, immerse oneself in and enjoy. Me, I’ve read my copy several times in the last twenty years, always in October. Won’t you join me?

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*A careful reading, early, though, suggests that Snuff is more than *just* a watchdog.

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4 Responses to “Mining the Genre Asteroid: A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny”

  1. TrishEM November 13, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

    I adore this book and am happy to see it’s back in print. I’ve also listened to the audiobook read by the author, but because Zelazny has a few odd pronunciations that jarred me out of the story, and because the book illustrations really are delightful, I definitely recommend the print version over the audiobook.

  2. Dàibhidh Ualraig Càidh November 14, 2014 at 4:00 pm #

    Just started reading it for the first time. 65 pages in and loving it!

  3. chadwickginther November 15, 2014 at 11:08 am #

    I did an October reread of this myself, reading one chapter a day. Loved it every bit as much as the first time I read it.

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