Saturday, November 01, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #303: A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

Some books inspire rituals. Ulysses created Bloomsday, and thousands of people read A Christmas Carol each December 24th. The SFF world can't be left out of such fun, and so a tradition arose [1] of reading Roger Zelazny's last novel, 1995's A Night in the Lonesome October, one chapter at a time over that month.

And since I always intend to do things for a long time for I actually get around to them, it wasn't until 2013 -- just past the 20th anniversary of the book, so no time in particular except "late" -- that I managed to perform that ritual myself. Lonesome October is well suited for reading over the course of a month: it's made up of thirty-two chapters, one to introduce the book and then one for each day of the month of October. So it's easy to pick it up each night, read that chapter, and put it down again for the next twenty-four hours. (I recommend it to any of you organized enough to already be planning what you'll read next October.)

Lonesome October is a bit of a departure for Zelazny: it is a first-person book, like most of his work, but our narrator is much less of an enigmatic smartass demigod than usual, and it's a loving pastiche of classic horror and Lovecraftian materials of a kind that Zelazny didn't come anywhere near for his other works. (A couple of his strong early stories are clear pastiches of a particular kind of old-SF planetary romance -- "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" and "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" -- somewhat similarly to Lonesome October, using standard ideas and situations and writing them in his own way.)

Here's how it works: once or twice a century, the full moon falls on Halloween. On that night, it's possible to open a Gate and welcome Lovecraftian creatures, Great Old Ones, into our world to transform it forever and smash the rule of mankind. Certain people are psychically sensitive to this possibility, and they gather in the right spot for each significant October, lining up either as Openers or Closers, jockeying for power and information over the course of that month and then engaging in a confrontation-cum-shared-ritual at midnight on Halloween to either open that gate forevermore or close it until the next opportunity.

The closers have won every time so far, of course. But it's rarely been easy, and the odds tend to be even. Players of the Game recognize each other, and keep an uneasy peace over the course of that October -- in large part because it's not always clear who wants to open and who to close until the fateful night. And each player also has a familiar, an animal to aid in preparations and on the day -- these animals are as intelligent as humans, can always communicate with each other, and can talk to their individual masters for an hour at midnight each day.

This October, the place is a small village near London, the time something indeterminate during the past century or so, and the players are assembling for the Game as October begins. Our narrator is Snuff, the dog familiar of Jack. We figure out quite quickly that Jack is a closer, and over a longer period that he's been at this Game for an extremely long time -- possibly longer than anyone else, even perhaps as long as there has been a Game. And the other players are gathering as well: the mad monk Rastov and his snake Quicklime, the witch Crazy Jill and her cat Graymalk, the secretive Welshman Owen with his squirrel Cheeter, the lightly-characterized Morris and MacCab with their owl Nightwind, the night-roaming Count and his bat Needle, the Good Doctor with his assistant and Bubo the rat and the gigantic man he brings to life with the power of lightning.

And there are a few others who may or may not be players, and who may be influential even if they aren't: the Great Detective, with his keen mind and array of disguises; the local Vicar Roberts, with a nasty crossbow, a fiery temper, and the albino raven Tekela; and Larry Talbot, a man with a secret, with a familiar name, and an ability to speak with Snuff at all times.

You will recognize many of those characters, of course: some very specifically and others as types. That's what Zelazny is doing: throwing a bunch of known horror characters into a common setting, giving them a month to run around and scheme about each other, and seeing what happens. The result is an episodic book, but one that clearly builds to a climax on that fateful Halloween night. Not all of the players will make it to Halloween, and even fewer will make it out the other end of that night.

It's a genial book with an undertone of danger and malice; the players are collegial if guarded up until the point they start trying to kill each other and transform the world. Zelazny was as good as anyone in the world at making transformation and unearthly power feel as everyday and real as a walk down the street, and that strength works well for this material: it's both cosmic and grounded, a saving-the-world story told by one shaggy dog.

Zelazny spent most of his career writing entertaining books that felt slighter than we all thought he was capable of, but they all were wonderfully entertaining, with a wry tone and perfectly controlled language and an only very slightly jaundiced view of mankind. Lonesome October is one of the most interesting and distinct of those books, well-worth reading in October or in any month, particular for those who enjoy the horror characters Zelazny borrows for his story.

[1] Actually, I think it flourished most ten to fifteen years ago, and is mostly dormant now. But don't confuse me with facts!

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index


Paul Weimer said...

One of my favorites; as of the time of this comment I have an unpublished blog post about it in the queue, :)

Shane said...

Actually read this for the first time this year. Though I read it over about three days rather than doing a chapter a day for the month. Maybe I will try that next year.

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