A Night in the Lonesome October is Roger Zelazny’s last novel and still stands as both my favorite Zelazny and my favorite book to open when it’s time for a fall reread, leading up to Halloween. It’s broken into chapters for each day of the month of October—which not only makes it eminently rereadable, but also means it’s the perfect autumnal treat to go along with my pumpkin spice latte. In fact, I encourage everyone I know to read or reread it along with me every Halloween—won’t you join me?
The book begins with a gathering of strange (and strangely familiar) magic workers who gather in a village outside of London to play a “game” in which each player has chosen one of two sides. Told from the perspective of Snuff, a delightful dog who loyally accompanies his master on strange and grisly errands, the story is slowly revealed through the interactions of the animal familiars (though the more-or-less human characters play their parts, as well).
Snuff works for Jack, a mysterious man with a long, strange history and a penchant for collecting gory and unusual objects…though Jack and Snuff are only active around those Halloweens which fall upon a full moon. The story opens with Snuff patrolling their house in the country, guarding the Things in the mirror, the Thing in the upstairs wardrobe, and the Thing in the circle in the basement—who tries to convince him that it is also a dog, of the female persuasion, and wouldn’t he like to come into the circle and find out how lovely it can be? (Snuff is not fooled by this though, as the thing can never get the scent quite right.)
What unfolds over the course of the month of October is both horror story and pastiche, paying homage to a dozen horror movie tropes while a certain Great Detective mucks about trying to solve the mystery even as the reader is trying to piece everything together. As cosmic horror slowly reveals itself and the characters all attempt to figure out who is on their side, we see the fascinating puzzle resolve itself into a single night at the end of the month when all will be decided; the stakes are no less than the fate of the world.
SPOILERS TO FOLLOW
Perhaps a spoiler warning isn’t needed for a book this old, but I’ve known enough people who have never read it (or heard of it) that I’ll just leave…
…here, just in case you want to go grab a copy and read along, day by day, this October.
As the days progress and we follow along with Snuff’s activities, it becomes clear that the dog is trying to solve a couple of mysteries of his own (in addition to patrolling the residence to be sure that none of the Things are escaping). First, he wanders the moors trying to figure out who is involved in the game and where they reside, which is the only way to calculate the location of the final confrontation. Secondly, it is of vital importance that Snuff determines which side of the game each player is on without revealing his own side too soon. (He will slip only once.)
As he matches up the players to their familiars, Snuff begins to build a map of the territory, which will lead him (and Jack) to the correct place on the night of October 31. Here are the players, as he determines them:
Snuff and Jack (the Ripper, although his deeper identity only becomes known—or at least suggested—late in the book)
Graymalk, the cat, and her human, Crazy Jill (probably based on one of the witches from Shakespeare’s MacBeth)
Quicklime, the snake, companion to Rastov (who evokes Rasputin)
Bubo, the rat, who sticks close to the Good Doctor (certainly a movie-inspired version of Victor Frankenstein)
Needle, the bat, certainly an intuitive companion for the Count (Dracula)
Nightwind, the owl companion to Morris and McCab (two graverobbers who might be based on fictionalized versions of Burke and Hare, serial killers in 1800s Edinburgh)
Cheeter the squirrel, familiar to Owen (a druid, whose identity/inspiration seems fairly obscure; at least, I’ve never found a definitive reference to him)
Tekela, the unfriendly white raven, who keeps company with Vicar Roberts (possibly based on Lovecraft’s Vicar, or possibly on the real life Barthélemy Lemeignan, who was convicted of sacrificing children)
Larry Talbot is perhaps his own companion: the name comes from the 1941 movie The Wolf Man, and Larry certainly suffers from lycanthropy.
The Great Detective (Sherlock Holmes) and his human companion (Watson) play an interesting part in the game, leaving Snuff confused about whether or not to include them in his calculations. They certainly manage to interfere with the other players and, as the Detective learns more, try to influence events themselves. Most of the players are also trying to interfere with each other, to gain an advantage for their side before the big night. Of course, since few of them have revealed their sides, they don’t actually know which team they’re messing with—once revealed, friends will become enemies and other players will be forced into unlikely alliances.
The two sides, as we find out by mid-month, are the openers and the closers. As each side carries on with their plans to defeat the other, we learn about the doorways between worlds, the Elder Gods, and the battle that has raged through time, whenever the full moon falls on Halloween.
Rumor has it that Zelazny wrote the story after taking a bet that he could make any character sympathetic to the reader—even someone as infamous as Jack the Ripper (though I haven’t been able to find anything to substantiate this origin story after a few years of searching). We’ll also have to give Zelazny a bit of wiggle room on the dates: there was a Halloween full moon in 1887, but Jack the Ripper wasn’t known to be active in London until 1888 (but if this is our biggest quibble with a book this entertaining, it’s hard to make a fuss…)
But the reason I keep returning to the story, year after year, is this: In spite of a heady cast of stock horror characters, dark stakes, and villainous deeds, A Night in the Lonesome October still manages to achieve something that is relatively rare for a Halloween story: it’s cozy.
Consider the following quote from Snuff:
I took Jack his slippers this evening and lay at his feet before a roaring fire while he smoked his pipe, sipped sherry, and read the newspaper. He read aloud everything involving killings, arsons, mutilations, grave robberies, church desecrations, and unusual thefts. It is very pleasant just being domestic sometimes.
Sure, it’s a horror novel, in terms of the plot and the visceral danger threaded throughout. But we also get the fun puzzle of picking out who all the characters are, and the delight of unraveling the many other literary references. Zelazny somehow manages to capture the essence of autumn, of quaint Victorian gaslight flickering in the library, hot tea on a cold day, and the sense—even as the leaves rattle and turn brown and days grow darker—that things will be okay, as long as we stay loyal to our friends.
Rachel Ayers lives in Alaska, where she writes cabaret shows, daydreams, and looks at mountains a lot. She has a degree in Library and Information Science which comes in handy at odd hours, and she shares speculative poetry and flash fiction (and cat pictures) at patreon.com/richlayers.