Before I begin, I feel obliged to apologize for starting my “Recommended Reading” series of posts with a book that may be hard to come by. Not the most heavily published novel to begin with, A Night in the Lonesome October has apparently gone out of print in recent years, and online markets seem to be starting the prices at $14 and up for even a paperback edition. It’s just the way of things… when it comes to science fiction and fantasy, things only stay in print if the author is alive and writing, has been dead for more than 100 years, or if the book has recently been turned into a major motion picture. With Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October, none of those things is true, and so it’s become a bit scarce. We can hope that NESFA, the publishers of the Collected Roger Zelazny series of short story compendiums, will eventually get around to reprinting some of his novels, but it hasn’t happened yet, and “Lonesome October” may not be one of the early selections in any case.
Still, though it may require you to scour the used book stores, I feel strongly about recommending this novel, especially at this time. We are, after all, approaching Halloween season, so it will soon be the optimal time to read it. Although I’m jumping the gun a bit on the season, I figured the extra lead time would hopefully give people a chance to pick it up while it’s still Halloween time. And this is a great book, one of my favorites. Published in 1993, it was the last novel completed by Roger Zelazny before his death due to cancer, and he is at the top of his game here. One of his few novels to deliberately have a light-hearted, humorous feel to it, A Night in the Lonesome October is also full of intrigue, sinister plots, and just enough action to keep things exciting without overwhelming the mystery. It was nominated for the 1994 Best Novel Nebula Award, but lost out to Greg Bear’s Moving Mars.
As the title implies, A Night in the Lonesome October takes during the month of October, with the events leading up to Halloween night. In fact, each day of the month is given its own chapter, which besides keeping things nicely laid out, means there are two different ways one can read this novel: all in one go, or at a rate of one chapter a day. Either is a fine way to enjoy the novel, but in recent years, I’ve favored the latter; for me, it’s more fun to watch the events slowly unfold that way. If you read it a chapter at a time, you can read the prologue either on September 30th or with the first chapter on October 1st.
“Lonesome October” takes place in Victorian England; contextually, we can conclude that it takes place in 1887, but Zelazny never specifies this in the text, and it’s possible (though unlikely given the care he often took) that he didn’t work it out precisely. But we know, because the central premise of the novel is that the walls between our world and that of Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones” becomes weaker whenever there is a full moon on Halloween, an event that happens only a few times a century. When this happens, a group of Players assembles to determine the fate of the world: Openers seek to open the way and restore the reign of the Elder Gods; Closers seek to keep the door closed and preserve the world as it is. The losing side is inevitably annihilated in the backlash of the other side’s victory; thus far, the Closers have always won. Though there is one instance referenced where the Great Game did not take place, as the Players were unable to determine where it was to occur (the Players are drawn to take up residence around the nexus, but determining the exact location requires complex geometry).
And what a cast of Players Zelazny gives us! A Night in the Lonesome October could be construed as a work of Victorian-era cross-over fan-fiction with all the public domain characters and concepts Zelazny throws in. There’s Jack (the Ripper), the Great Detective (Sherlock Holmes), the Mad Monk Rastov (or should we say Rasputin?), the Good Doctor (Frankenstein), the Count (guess who?) and several other recognizable characters and character archtypes. They don’t know each others allegiances. They don’t know who can be trusted and relied upon, and who will seek to kill them when the nexus becomes fixed after the new moon. But each has one sure ally, their own animal familiar, who can carry out errands for them, and communicate with them after midnight each night. It is through the familiars that we learn the most about the characters and the Game, because the viewpoint is through the eyes of Snuff, Jack’s watchdog familiar.
Yes, it’s a story where the narrator is Jack the Ripper’s dog. It’s a weird little book.
Through Snuff’s eyes, we are shown the preparations for the Game, and the calculations required to determine the final location. His interactions with the other familiars, most particularly the witch Crazy Jill’s familiar Graymalk, provide opportunities to learn about the Players, and raise questions about just who is a Player and who is an innocent bystander, and which side everybody is on. As Snuff and Graymalk become allies during their answer-seeking, Jack and Jill begin a burgeoning romance, albeit a star-crossed one, as events reveal that Jill is an Opener, while Jack is a Closer.
Yes, it’s a story in which you’re rooting for Jack the Ripper to save the world from the threat of Cthulhu. Like I said, it’s a weird little book.
But it’s also a tremendously fun book, well-crafted, and cleverly written. The macabre little illustrations by Gahan Wilson in most editions of the book add just a touch more fun to the work, but any version of the story is highly recommended for anybody who wants to see a blend of comic fantasy, dark fantasy, Victorian mystery, and Lovecraftian horror. And while not Zelazny’s absolute best work (that would be either Lord of Light or the Chronicles of Amber) it’s still a great novel that’s better than 90% of the field.