Sunday, October 17, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: A Night in the Lonesome October

The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crisped and sere--
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year;

This is revised and expanded from an earlier post several years ago.

We are now well into October, so I expect I should get along with my review of Roger Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome October (It's not to be confused with a bog standard novel of the same name, though both obviously take their title from Poe's Ulalume).  The book has thirty one chapters, each corresponding to a day of October in 1887. Before our daughter was born, my wife and I used to read a chapter a day in October and I'm sure we're not the only ones to do that.

A Night in the Lonesome October is narrated by Snuff, the dog who is Jack the Ripper's familiar. (I lent the book to a friend when we first met, and he said "If anyone asks, the narrator is Jack the Ripper's dog, okay?")  
  Snuff says early on: "I fetch things for Jack on occasion, his wand, his big knife with the old writing on the sides.  I always know just when he needs them because it is my job to watch and to know.  I like being a watchdog better than what I was before he summoned me and gave me this job." The last part is the subject of some debate in certain circles. Was Snuff a regular dog before Jack called him or was Snuff something else entirely before the summoning and only exists in dogform now? I tend to lean towards the former, but I do like the ambiguity.

I thought it would make an excellent board game. I even tried sketching out some rules, based on how Snuff had described it to Larry. There were different roles characters could take, Watcher, Anticipator, Diviner, Calculator. You'd play the animals. It would be a blast if properly done.

It is revealed as the story progresses that once every few decades, when the moon is full on the night of Halloween (Apropos of nothing, apparently I was born on a Halloween of the full moon, something I learned just now.), the fabric of reality thins, and doors may be opened between this world and the realm of the Elder Gods. When these conditions are right, men and women with occult knowledge may gather at a specific ritual site, to either hold the doors closed, or to help fling them open. Should the Closers win, then the world will remain as it is until the next turning... but should the Openers succeed, then the Elder Gods will come to Earth, to remake the world in their own image. The Openers have never yet won. These meetings are often referred to as "The Game" or "The Great Game" by the participants. I think Zelazny called it that specifically for the purposes of the following exchange:

Last night we obtained more ingredients for the master's spell.  As we paused on a corner in Soho the Great Detective and his companion came out of the fog and approached us.

"Good evening," he said.

"Good evening," Jack replied.

"Would you happen to have a light?"

Jack produced a package of wax vestas and passed it to him.  Both men maintained eye contact as he lit his pipe.
"Lots of patrolmen about."


 "Something's afoot, I daresay."

Get it? Get it?!

Anyways, it is just such an enjoyable book. Zelazny reads it on the version I have, and while he seemed incapable of getting through a sentence without parsing it on the Amber audiobooks, he sounds like he's having a blast reading this one. I wouldn't say it's his best written book, though it's certainly the most fun. I'd say it even beats out Neil Gaiman's Study in Emerald for the best Sherlock Holmes/HP Lovecraft/Jack the Ripper crossover (which admitedly is not the most crowded field.)

The thing
that makes it work is the interaction between Snuff, Jack's dog, and Graymalk, Jill's pet. It starts as guarded admiration and matures into the genuine respect and friendship over the course of the month.

The cat Graymalk came slinking about, pussyfoot, peering in our windows.  Ordinarily, I have little against cats.  I can take them or leave them, I mean.  But Graymalk belongs to Crazy Jill who lives over the hill, in towards town, and Graymalk was spying for her mistress, of course.  I growled to let her know she had been spotted.

     "About your watching early, faithful Snuff," she hissed.

     "About your spying early," I responded, "Gray."

     "We have our tasks."

     "We do."

     "And so it has begun."

     "It has."

     "Goes it well?"

     "So far.  And you?"

     "The same.  I suppose it is easiest simply to ask this way, for now."

     ". . . But cats are sneaky," I added.

     She tossed her head, raised a paw and studied it.

     "There are certain pleasures to be had in lurking."

     "For cats," I said.

     ". . . And certain knowledges gained."

     "Such as . . . ?"

     "I am not the first come calling here today.  My predecessor left traces.  Are you aware of this, faithful watcher?"

     "No," I replied.  "Who was it?"

     "The owl, Nightwind, consort of Morris and MacCab.  I saw him flee at dawn, found a feather out back.  The feather is tainted with mummy dust, to do you ill."

     "Why do you tell me this?"

     "Perhaps because I am a cat and it amuses me to be arbitrary and do you a good turn.  I shall take the feather away with me and leave it at their window, concealed amid shrubs."

     "I prowled last night after my walk," I said.  "I was near your house beyond the hill.  I saw Quicklime, the black snake who lives in the belly of the mad monk, Rastov.  He rubbed against your doorpost, shedding scales."

     "Ah! And why do you tell me this?"

     "I pay my debts."

     "There should not be debts between our folk."

     "This is between us."

     "You are a strange hound, Snuff."

     "You are a strange cat, Graymalk."

     "As it should be, I daresay."

     And she was gone amid shadows.  As it should be.

Is that not awesome? I remember reading somewhere Zelazny discussing the book, and he said something about how dogs love their masters uncritically, and even Jack the Ripper would be loved by his dog if he were nice to it.  Jack does seem like a decent master. Another of my favorite scenes is when he's rescuing Snuff from the vivisectionists.

     I could see it now, like a black tornado, surrounding Jack, settling inward.  If it entered him completely he would no longer be in control of his actions.

     "I've come for my dog," he said.  "That's him on your table."

     He moved forward.

     "No, you don't, laddie," said the beefy man.  "This is a special job for a special client."

     "I'll be taking him and leaving now."

     The beefy man raised his scalpel and moved around the table.

     "This can do amazing things to a man's face, pretty boy," he said.

     The others picked up scalpels, also.

     "I'd guess you've never met a man as really knows how to cut," the beefy one said, advancing now.


     It was into him, and that funny light came into his eyes, and his hand came out of his pocket and captured starlight traced the runes on the side of his blade.

     "Well-met," Jack said then, through the teeth of his grin, and he continued to walk straight ahead.

It's not the easiest book to find any more but any book that throws together Jack the Ripper, "The Count", "The Good Doctor" and his "Experiment Man" a Werewolf, a Witch, a crazed Vicar, a druid, and a Mad Monk, each with their animal companions and works as a serious novel is really worth seeking out. It's my nature to have tiny little complaints even about my favorite works, but there is absolutely nothing I would change about it. The Vicar in particular is a wonderfully vile villain, the count is alien and strange, but standing with the angels for this time:

Then the moon went out.  We all looked upward as a dark shape covered it, descending, rushing toward us.  Morris shrieked shrilly as it fell, changing shape as if dark veils swam about it.  And then the moon shone again, and the piece of midnight sky which had fallen came to earth beside Jack, and I saw that vision-twisting transformation of which Graymalk had spoken, here, there, a twist, a swirl, a dark bending, and the Count stood at Jack's side, smiling a totally evil smile.  He laid his left hand, the dark ring visible upon it, upon Jack's right shoulder.

     "I stand with him," he said, "to close you out."

     Vicar Roberts stared at him and licked his lips.

     "I would think one of your sort more inclined to our view in this matter," the vicar stated.

     "I like the world just the way it is," said the Count.  "Pray, let us begin."

The Count doesn't get a lot of screen time, but just about every appearance is filled to overflowing with awesome. Bubo is great, the Body Parts man is wonderful, the Sherlock Holmes bits are superbly crafted.

More so than anything Zelazny has ever written, this novel is begging for a sequel. Set it in 1955 with a mix of more modern monsters and some returning favorites and it would be be incredible.


  1. It really is an excellent book. I've read it twice, and the unabridged audio book read by Zelazny himself has been a faithful goodnight companion to me over the last several years.

  2. Jack's "Well-met" really is some sweetly chilling moment; one of my favorite parts, too. Though usually not a big fan of onomatopoeia in literature, the "Dzzp" buildup worked very well for me, maybe because of the recounting by Snuff.

    No kidding, this is an excellent book. I've read it twice, and the unabridged audio book (read by Zelazny himself) has been a faithful goodnight companion to me over the last several years. It just doesn't get old.

  3. It really is one of my all time favorites. I tend to favor a physical copy of the book if I'm reading a chapter a day out loud with my wife, but I otherwise lean towards the audio book too. There's something about the audio book format that lets me find details that I had previously missed.

  4. I just stumbled on your blog while researching why Audible stopped carrying a bunch of Zelazny. Anyway, I'm a HUGE fan of ANITLO, and listen to the audio book every October. Anyway, I love what you've done here. This is really fantastic. I'm hopping over to read your Lord of Light series next. One question, do you know if Morris and MacCab have any literary significance? I could never tell. I always visualized them as Jekyll and Hyde split into two separate people, but they are really only touched on in the book. Anyway, beautiful work here!!!

  5. Thanks! I really enjoy working on it and it's always nice to hear that someone enjoys reading it!

    I've heard a couple different theories about Morris and McCab and I'm inclined to think they are based on Burke and Hare (, but I'm really just guessing here.

    If you find out about the disappearing Zelazny books, please let me know. I originally signed up for Audible because I saw they had Lord of Light, and I was able to re-download it, even though it was no longer available for sale. Based on that, I'd guess they lost the license or something along those lines, but I'm just guessing here too.

  6. Not only is this one of my favorite Zelazny books ever, but it's got some of my favorite cover art of any book ever. In fact, the art is so good that it's sparked a pretty serious discussion over on Goodreads . . .

    A few of us are trying to pinpoint exactly which characters are which on the cover. The thread is here:

    And we're using this picture as a guide, for ease of conversation:

    Josh, if you or anyone else (an army of Chrises, perhaps?) would like to weigh in with your opinion, I'm sure everyone would love to have you!

  7. Wow, I'm terrible at this -- I'd always assumed the guy on the lower right with his hand on Snuff's head was Jack! I never even noticed the little fangs, a fairly obvious clue.

    --Chris DeVito

  8. Just published in the December issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction is my essay "Fallen Books and Other Subtle Clues in Zelazny's A NIGHT IN THE LONESOME OCTOBER." In it I discuss who I think each of the characters is meant to be and why, and conclude with a discovery about who Snuff is really based on.


    PS: Josh, the form is still not allowing me to post via my LiveJournal account. The error messages is "Your OpenID credentials could not be verified." Does this mean that the form is misconfigured such that a LiveJournal account is being queried as if it were an OpenID account?

  9. I gave this announcement its own post for folks who don't read the comments.

    As far as commenting from a LiveJournal account, I've looked into it and apparently this has been a problem intermittently on Blogspot, but it's now cropping up with greater regularity now that Google/Blogspot has "improved" the way the commenting is handled. Bloggers have attempted workarounds with varied success, so I'll try some of those at my end and see if it improves this.

  10. An upcoming Zelazny tribute, via Lovecraft:

    1. Awesome! I hadn't seen this! Thanks so much for the link!

  11. I saw that today too, Chris. I'm sure I'll end up submitting something terrible. =P

  12. What a lovely review!

    I was lucky enough to catch Zelazny reading from ANitLO at World Fantasy in Minneapolis just after it had been published, and I treasure the audiobook to this day.

    Oddly, I don't tend to read it very often, as much as Gahan Wilson's art suited the book, I find Zelazny's voice reading it to be so much more appealing.

    I listen to it every October, of course. I adore it.

    Now off to read the rest of your Zelazny reviews.

    1. Thanks! :)

      I really enjoyed his reading on the audiobook too.

  13. So--who else is starting a re-read of this book today? I know I can't be the only one!

    1. I lent my copy to my next door neighbor. My story is going to be in the Lovecraft October issue, so I'm trying to familiarize as many friends and family with novel before the issue comes out.

  14. Josh, that's excellent! Glad to hear your story made the Lovecraft issue. Although, to be fair, I actually found the news for myself when Mike Davis emailed all of us yesterday and I saw your address listed in the email. But I didn't want to say anything about it here, just in case you were keeping it a surprise for people you knew. =P

    I look forward to reading your story, Mr. "Fiction Isn't My Strong Point!"

    1. Yeah, well, wait till you read the story to see if I was being humble or not :)

  15. Hey, all. I wanted to update you guys on the upcoming A NIGHT IN THE LONESOME OCTOBER "sequel" issue. It'll be out in about 10 days; free to read at the website ( ), and also available for Kindle and Nook.

    It will also feature an introduction by Roger Zelazny's son, and an essay on the book... and EIGHT, count 'em, EIGHT stories. And they're damn good.

    I also want to say what a great review this is, Josh. Glad you submitted your story for the issue.

  16. I've always loved this one too, though there's one thing in it that makes no sense to me: Much is made of the fact that Snuff is an excellent Calculator, but it doesn't seem to count for anything in the end - everyone shows up. Is that just because the Openers spread the word among themselves?

    --Garth Rose