Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: A Night in the Lonesome October

What’s this then: A Night in the Lonesome October is a pretty light fantasy novel from Roger Zelazny, probably best known for his Chronicles of Amber and Lord of Light.  In it, Snuff, Jack the Ripper’s magical pet dog (yes, really) narrates the lead up to a supernatural battle in which one side wishes to summon Lovecraftian horrors to end the earth, and the other side wants to maintain the status quo.  The players of this game are all the stock figures of gothic horror: a vampre, a witch, a werewolf and so on.  Luckily, these characters, cliched as they could have been, don’t get too much stage-time.  Instead their animal familiars do most of the legwork in playing the game, doing research, spying, forming and breaking alliances and all that.  Underneath all the magical trappings and the humor and the bits of Lovecraft pastiche, there’s actually a pretty good espionage thriller here.

The book contains illustrations by macabre cartoonist Gahan Wilson.  I sometimes found Wilson’s art hard to “read” visually, because he likes to give odd, angled vantage points, but once I grasped them, I thought they did a good job of adding to the simultaneously creepy and goofy mood of the text.

Well, s’it any good?: It’s not a mindblowing philosophical work or anything (which Zelazny could have aimed for), but it is a very, very fun read.  I read it once about four years ago, and began thinking recently that it would be a nice fit for this little column.  I remembered it being kind of a cute, fluffy book but good enough.  On rereading it, I’m much more impressed.  The best things in this book are easily missed.  First, the spy game is well played and well played out.  Just about every twist and double cross you could imagine occurs, but if you pay careful attention they all make sense and you may even have guessed some of them by the time they occur.  Snuff is not always the brightest and its easy for the reader to see where they should give more notice to something Snuff takes for granted.  Of course, I don’t really know what its like to be a dog (magical or otherwise), but Zelazny’s depiction of what it may be like inside Snuff’s head rings true to what I do know about dogs.  Details of smell take on more import here than in perhaps any other book I’ve read.  Other reviewers have remarked on the book’s charm and wit.  The humor distracts — only for a moment — from a couple of truly creepy scenes.  But the fact that you have to stop to reflect on them makes them all the creepier. And perhaps there’s a sense that Snuff, being Jack the Ripper’s dog is a lot less perturberd by the wet slapping a sound of someone throwing a dead person’s liver  downhill then I would be.

What’s the best bit?:  This isn’t going to make much sense if you don’t know the plot (which I’m being careful to try not to spoil), but bear with me.  Snuff and his ally Graymalk the cat, reattach Cheeter the squirrel’s shadow to him after finding out it was taken by Cheeter’s owner Owen the druid.  The whole process is described, and as Snuff pulls the silver nails that hold Cheeter’s shadow down, the shadow starts to flap in the wind, since in this magic spell, its a physical item.  Where, in so many fantasy books, magic is used mostly to blow things up here it follows a dream-like semi-logic that seems more suited to myth and folklore.  There are other nice touches like this, from the way The Count (I’m sure you can guess who that is) moves, to Graymalk turning two dimensional while leaving the (Lovecraft inspired) Dreamlands.  This is again, one of those subtle things that could be easily missed, but I think fans of Neil Gaiman will be pleased by the type of magic portrayed in this book.

Anything else:  I like that this book has a sort of built in audience participation factor.  First of all, there’s the fun of trying to figure out the shifting alliances of the game.  Secondly, the book unfolds across 31 chapters, one each for each day of the month of October.  If you read a chapter a day there’s a sense of following the story in “real time.”  There have been experiments in doing this since, but Zelazny gave it to us in 1994, as the internet was just starting to come to prominence.  The fact that there’s a “game” built in the book adds in to its spirit of sheer fun.  The book is out of print, but you can probably find a used copy and since its early in the month, and the chapters are short, you won’t have too much catching up to do.  If you’re looking for a breezy Halloween-themed read, I recommend A Night in the Lonesome October.  Without reservation, I adore this book.

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Published in: on October 3, 2011 at 11:34 am  Leave a Comment  

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