Wednesday, October 23, 2013

October 23: A Night in the Lonesome October-fest

October 23rd! If I had to pick a favorite chapter, this would probably be it.

It opens with Snuff catching up with Larry about current events, and they then try to determine the missing value in Snuff's calculations.

"A mystery player?" I asked. "Someone who's been lying low all this time?" 
"It seems as if there must be. Hasn't it ever happened before?" 
I thought hard, recalling Games gone by. 
"It's been tried," I said then. "But the others always found him out." 
"Things like this," I said. "Pieces that don't fit any other way." 
"This is fairly late in the game. It's never gone this long. Everyone's always known everyone else by this time, with only about a week to go." 
"In those situations where someone was hiding out, how did you go about discovering him?" 
"We usually all know by the Death of the Moon. If something seems wrong afterward that can only be accounted for by the presence of another player, the power is then present to do a divinatory operation to determine the person's identity or location." 
"Don't you think it might be worth giving it a try?" 
"Yes. You're right. Of course, it's not really my specialty. Even though I know something about all of the operations, I'm a watcher and I'm a calculator. I'll get someone else to give it a try, though." 
"I don't know yet. I'll have to find out who's good at it, and then suggest it formally, so that I get to share the results. I'll share them with you then, of course." 
"What if it's someone you can't stand?" 
"Doesn't matter. There are rules, even if you're trying to kill each other. If you don't follow them, you don't last long. I may have something that that person will want, like the ability to do an odd calculation, say, for something other than the center."

I like this passage, because it strikes me as so characteristically Zelaznian, and so emblematic about what I love about his work. He was always wonderful about positing a great concept and then following it through down to its logical outcome.

Something that causes me to wonder is Snuff's line, "There are rules, even if you're trying to kill each other." followed immediately by "If you don't follow them, you don't last long." I always wondered how binding these rules were. Is a violation of the rules of the Game simply an embarrassing faux pas, which will impact the relationship with the other players? Jack's comment to Larry about how proclaiming himself a closer so early was "gauche" would support this interpretation.

Later on in this chapter, Snuff observes "The tools have a way of producing repercussive effects when they're used extracurricularly," which suggests that are supernatural ramifications for using Game Tools for something other than their intended purposes. Does this mean that there are supernatural consequences for violating the rules of the Game?

My guess is generally, no. We see in the final chapter that when certain rules are violated, steps may be taken to correct the situation, but I get the impression that the rules of which Snuff speaks are closer to guidelines and traditions, and if you violate them, you'll alienate potential allies. No one will trade with you and you'll wind up an weaker position than you otherwise would be.

Snuff and Larry talk about the extent and limitations of their respective abilities and then Quicklime signals for Snuff from a tree. Rastov had apparently killed himself. Snuff and Larry perform some investigations and, on finding the Alhazred Icon missing, conclude that it was murder rather than suicide.

"I don't think he killed himself," I said finally. "Somebody overpowered him while he was drunk or hung over, then did that to him. They wanted it to look as if he did it to himself." 
"He was pretty strong," Quicklime responded. "But if he'd started in drinking again this morning, he might not have been able to defend himself well."
Snuff invites Quicklime to stay with him and Jack, but the snake declines:
"I think not," he hissed. "I think I'm done with the Game. He was a good man. He took good care of me. He cared about people, about the whole world. What's that human notion, compassion. He had a lot of that. It's one of the reasons he drank a lot, I think. He felt everybody else's pain too much. No. I'm done with the Game. I'll slip back to the woods now. I still know a few burrows, a few places where the mice make their runs. Leave me alone here for a while now. I'll see you around, Snuff."
Rastov was a minor character for the entire book, never getting more than couple brief cameos and a handful of lines, but those few words from Quicklime make me really like him.

Shortly after this, Snuff and Gray break into the vicarage to investigate Lynette and possibly locate the Count's ring and the Icon. The vicar shows up midway through their investigation, having been alerted by Tekela.
"Bad," Graymalk said. Then, "I can occupy the vicar."

"The hell with him! I'm going to take out the study window!"

I reached the corner just as the nasty little man came around the other corner, a riding crop in his hand. I had to slow to turn into the room and he brought it down across my back. Before he could strike a second time, though, Graymalk had leaped into his face, all of her claws extended.

I bounded across the room, a scream rising at my back, and leaped at the window, closing my eyes as I hit. I took the thing with me, mullions and all. Turning then, I sought Graymalk.

She was nowhere in sight but I heard her yowl from within. Two bounds and a leap brought me back into the room. He was holding her high by her hind legs and swinging the crop. When it connected she screamed and he let her fall, for he had not expected me to return, let alone be coming at him low off the floor with my ears flat and a roar in my throat straight from my recent refresher with Growler.

He swung the crop but I came in beneath it. If Graymalk were dead, I was going to kill him.
Another great passage.

Snuff and Gray escape, then accompany their respective humans into the city. The animals go off to wander the city streets while the humans make their purchases, but Snuff is attacked and chloroformed by the vicar and his crew. He awakens in a vivisectionist's lair.

The segment where they strap him down reminds me a lot of the sequence from the beginning of Call of the Wild, where Buck is treated similarly and has thoughts along the same lines.

The most obvious plan was to fake lassitude when they came for me, then to spring to attack as soon as the cage door was opened. I'd a feeling, though, that I wasn't the first ever to think of such a ploy, and where were the others now? Still, I couldn't just lie there and contribute to medical understanding. So unless something better came along I resolved to give this plan a try when they came for me.

When they did, of course, they were ready. They'd a lot of expertise with fangs and knew just how to go about it. There were three of them, and two had on elbow-length padded gloves. When I pulled the awake, lunge, and bite maneuver I got a padded forearm forced back between my jaws, and my legs were seized and held while someone twisted an ear painfully.
I'd have to read that book again to determine if it looks like an homage or a coincidence, though.

The vivisectionists are going to render Snuff down for ritual components for the vicar. I've referenced the essay a couple times already in this series, but I think Chris Kovacs was particularly brilliant in his effort to suss out the identity of the vivisectionists. As always, read the whole thing. He notes that the physical descriptions correspond to those of the Three Stooges, and I will henceforth always imagine them in this way. Calling Doctor Howard, Doctor Fine, Doctor Howard, indeed.

It looks like it's curtains for Snuff, but he hears the sound that accompanies Jack's curse. (Then I heard it, Dzzp!, a high-pitched whine descending to a low throb in about three seconds each cycle. It is above the range of the human ear, and it accompanies the main curse, circling at a range of about a hundred fifty yards initially. Dzzp!)

Jack forces his way in.

Heavy footsteps crossed the outer room. Then the door immediately across from me was flung open. Jack stood upon the threshold, staring at the cages, the vivisectionists, myself upon the table. Graymalk peered in from behind him.

"Just who do you think you are, bursting into a private laboratory?" said the beefy man. 
". . . Interrupting a piece of scientific research?" said the tall man.

". . . And damaging our door?" said the short man with the wide shoulders and large hands.

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.

When we left I realized that the old cat had been right about the seas and messes, too. I wondered what sort of light they would give.

What can I say? It's fantastic. It works on so many different levels. I really don't think there's any way to improve it. It's one of those rare perfect passages anywhere in fiction.


  1. While I agree that this chapter is excellent (especially in the wake of the Dreamlands chapter), I find it funny that you specifically mentioned it as being flawless, because there was a (very small) part I hit while reading that made me think, "Hm, that probably could have been a little better."

    I'm referring to page 190, when one of the vivisectionists is explaining to the other what they're going to do:

    "He was very specific that when we render him down, a piece at a time, for candles, there be no foreign blood or other materials mixed in."

    To me, it's exposition with a bit of a "Your brother, the king" feel to it. If the middle had been cut out so that it read, "He was very specific that when we render him down, there be no foreign blood or other materials mixed in," it wouldn't have set off any alarms for me. Of course, in that case the reader might have been unclear on what was happening, but--well, that's exactly what makes this feel awkward to me: it seems like the vivisectionist is talking for my benefit, not for the other characters'. (And I think any confusion could have been cleared by a side-note from Snuff: "The Vicar apparently wanted me turned into candles, likely for one of his dark rituals.")

    Anyway, like I said, it's a minor criticism. I just thought it was worth mentioning because A) you specifically called this chapter flawless, and B) this was a flaw (to me) that I specifically came to the blog to comment on.

    The chapter was still amazing, though. And now you've got me wondering which single one is my favorite--I'll have to think about this, going forward!

    1. I reread what I wrote. I was trying to say that I thought the quoted segment, from when Jack smashes down the door to the end of the chapter, was perfect, but it looks like my statement could apply to the chapter as a whole.

      But I agree, both with what you said about how that line reads too much like exposition, and with your proposed amendment.

    2. D'oh . . . you're right, you absolutely *didn't* specify that you were talking about the chapter as a whole. I'm terrible, and I'm sorry.

    3. Quite all right! It would have served me to write that more clearly. I should strive to make sure that the gap between what I mean and what I write is as small as I can make it.

  2. Jack's rescue of Snuff is another little gem of writing in this book.