Wednesday, October 30, 2013

October 31: A Night in the Lonesome October-fest

#Zelazny #LonesomeOctober

This is Halloween, this Halloween!

(Halloween, Halloween!)

Sorry, I got carried away.

The big day arrives. Snuff returns to Larry's grove to find it empty. Then he seeks Graymalk, and when he finds her, they walk and discuss things, perhaps for the last time.

We hiked for a long time in silence before she said, "You and Jack will be the only closers there." 
"It looks that way," I said. 
"I'm sorry." 
"That's okay."

The story has so many moments like this, and that exchange is one of my favorites. Snuff and Gray both wish things were different, but they're not, so the only thing you can do is comfort your friend as best you can and go on living in the world as it is.

They discuss events, Gray offering Snuff some wisdom she had learned from the Dreamworld Cat. They then part ways, with Gray leaving for a strategy session with the other openers and Snuff heading home.

However, he is intercepted by Quicklime, who passes on some information. He tells Snuff that the vicar killed Rastov, but the Count killed Owen in retaliation. Snuff thinks Quicklime is confused, because Owen was killed after the Count died.

Au contraire, Quicklime tells him. The Count merely faked his death, and has been lying low with the gipsies ever since. Snuff is happy to have the information, but isn't sure what to make of it at the point.

Later on, he talks with Bubo, who laments that he wasn't able to do anything important, like the rest of them. Snuff reassures him that all the little things add up to make the difference.

Then, finally, it is time for the ceremony. Jack and Snuff approach the hill to find the vicar and Morris and MacCab feeding the fire. He gives a little background on it.
The banefire is a necessary part of our business. It goes all the way back into the misty vastness of our practices. Both sides require it, so in this sense it is a neutral instrument. After midnight, it comes to burn in more than one world, and we may add to it those things which enhance our personal strengths and serve our ends. It attracts otherworldly beings sympathetic to both sides, as well as neutral spirits who may be swayed by the course of the action. Voices and sights may pass through it, and it serves as a secondary, supportive point of manifestation to whatever the opening or closing object may be. Customarily, we all bring something to feed it, and it interacts with all of us throughout the ritual. I had urinated on one of our sticks, for example, several days earlier. There are times when players have been attacked by its flames; and I can recall an instance when one was defended by a sudden wall of fire it issued. It is also good for disposing of evidence. It comes in handy on particularly cold nights, too.

This passage always reminds me how tremendously influential Roger Zelazny has been on the way that I think and write. I encountered his works at the point in my life when I was deciding the person I would be as an adult, and the line I bolded (edit: now actually bolded), which is characteristic of his writing, always struck me as particularly brilliant. Zelazny was superb at understanding the intersection of the magical and mundane, and thereby investing his works with verisimilitude. The most beautifully realized fantasy world is great, but it's only half the story. If you want me to believe in it, the way I do with Lonesome October, it has to be grounded in the real world.

The participants position themselves, and Jill shows up and joins the circle. Snuff and Gray converse, Gray tells them that they raised an objection to Lynette's sacrifice, but they were overruled. Gray asks how they'll know when it's time to begin, and Snuff replies, "When we can talk with the people." So it looks like I was wrong about that, and all the familiars share the same midnight to one window for conversation.

"Jack, can you hear me?" I called.  
"Loud and clear, Snuff. Well-met by moonlight. What's on your mind?" 
"Just checking the time," I said. 
Suddenly Nightwind was talking to Morris and MacCab, Tekela to the vicar.

(Though it seems somehow wrong that a reference to a quote from Oberon occurs outside the Amber books). The players begin readying their gear, and then there is another arrival.

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."

I love that passage. The Count gets barely more exposure that Rastov or Owen, but his passages are some of my favorites. (Probably, at least in part, because he's used so sparingly.)

They begin, Larry appears, darts in and begins pulling Lynette away with the same method he employed with the constable's corpse. Before he can get far, however, the vicar shoots him with a silver bullet. When Larry drops, the vicar orders Morris and MacCab to put her back to the altar. This is obviously not the Count's first rodeo, as he objects.

"Stop!" the Count said. "Players are forbidden to move a sacrifice once the ceremony is in progress!" 
The vicar stared at him. Morris and MacCab halted, looked back and forth from the vicar to the Count. 
"I never heard of such a restriction," the vicar said. 
"It is a part of the tradition," Jack stated. "There must always be a small, even if only symbolic, exit open to a sacrifice in this. They may go as far as they can. They may be stopped. The place where they fall becomes the new altar. Do otherwise and you destroy the pattern we have created. The results could be disastrous." 
The vicar pondered for a moment, then said, "I don't believe you. You're outnumbered. It's a closer's bluff, to make things more awkward for me. Morris! MacCab! Put her back!" 
The Count stepped forward as they advanced. 
"In a case such as this," he said, "the opposing parties are permitted to resist the desecration." 
I heard heavy, clumping footsteps in the distance, but they seemed to be passing the hill rather than approaching it. 
Morris and MacCab had hesitated but then they moved forward, reaching for Lynette. 
The Count flowed forward. No single limb seemed to stir, but suddenly he was there beside them. Then he raised his arms, out to the sides, his cloak dependent therefrom; and he moved them forward, completely engulfing the men within its folds. He stood thus for only an instant, arms across his chest, before a succession of snapping sounds could be heard. 
He opened his arms and they fell to the earth, to lie at odd angles, blood emerging from their ears, noses, and mouths. Their eyes were wide. They did not breathe. 
"You dare?" the vicar cried. "You dare to touch my people?" 
The Count turned his head slowly, raising his arms again. 
"You presume," he said, "to address me so."
The interesting part of that, to me, is that the salient point seems to be that players are forbidden to move the sacrifice. Larry was working very closely with the closers throughout October, and he was influential enough that Snuff considered him a player for the purposes of calculating the site of the ceremony. However, since he didn't meet the criteria of a player for the purposes of the Game, he wasn't bound by the restrictions placed on players either. Is there any reason for players NOT to have at least one such unofficial cohort, exactly for situations such as this?

The Count advances on the vicar, but the vicar casts something towards him that causes him to stop.

"Dirt from one of your own caskets," the vicar replied, "mixed with pieces of my church's altar stone relic, left over from more papish times. Fingerbone of St. Hilarian, according to the records. You require your consecrated soil, but overconsecration is like the difference between a therapeutic and a debilitating dose of strychnine. Do you not agree?"

I like this a lot. I believe it's something the vicar improvised, because vampires have a large number of easily exploitable weaknesses, and there is not a lot of point of whipping up some ridiculous Rube Goldberg anti-vampire powder when you could simply use one of them instead. In my head-canon, the vicar had no reason to suspect that the Count would be returning, and had prepared the superconsecrated dirt to employ in the Game, and happened to have it on hand when the Count arrived unannounced.

Here's a link to St. Hilarian, who was a real Saint, but of no special significance to Halloween.

This encounter served as a distraction to allow the Great Detective to complete Larry's task, and slip away with Lynette. When the vicar notices she's gone, his first act is to blame Jill, which cements him as a dickhead.

The players undergo several transformations. Snuff had been hearing heavy footsteps throughout the night, and as Jill and Jack ready their wands, the experiment man lumbers up to them and scoops up Gray, despite her protests, and settles down to pet her. ("Pret-ty kit-ty.") Snuffs observes tentacles within the gateway. He hears Bubo's voice observing that things aren't working out quite as he intended. Snuff asks him what he means.

"I fixed it so they'd defeat themselves after they'd disposed of you," Bubo said. 
There were great masses of tentacles now, all of them writhing toward the Gateway. 
"I sneaked about last night," Bubo said, "and I switched the wands." 
I seemed to hear the odd sounds of a cat's laughter. It's so hard to tell when they're smiling. The old cat hadn't been telling me to fetch a stick. . .
Carpe baculum: Seize the wand.
I sprang into the air, catching it in my teeth, twisting it out of Jack's grip. I could see the astonished expression on his face as I did so.

Larry leaps at the vicar, which carries them both through the gateway. Jack chucks the wine bottle containing the slitherers after them, ( "Any port in a storm," he observed) and then it's over. The closers have won again.

The book ends with

Jack and Jill went down the hill. Gray and I ran after.

Which is wonderful. (Zach Shephard calls back to it with his own Lonesome October story, something I very much appreciated)

Final thoughts: I'm surprised that there were as many survivors and potential survivors as there were. Zelazny remarks in the Introduction to 24 Views of Mount Fuji that others had observed that he rarely kills his characters, and he said he wrote that story in part due to that, as well as the observation that he rarely wrote female characters. I never thought about that tendency one way or the other, though, though I do note that it's in evidence here. The Count survives, the Good Doctor probably did, even Tekela gets away. I'm not complaining (indeed, that happens to be my preference as well)

The whole book is outstanding. I've said that before, and I'm running out superlatives to describe it, but it's great. All of it. The concept, the plotting, the dialogue, the pacing, the fakeouts, the writing, it's difficult to pick out what I like best about it. Roger Zelazny is at the top of his game, and every one of those elements combines and synergizes with the rest to make A Night in the Lonesome October a Halloween classic.


  1. First, before I forget:

    ". . . and the line I bolded, which is characteristic of his writing, always struck me as particularly brilliant."

    Is it just me, or did you not actually bold a line in that passage? I wanna know which one you were referring to!

    With that out of the way, I now want to comment on how much I agree with your final paragraph. It never ceases to amaze me just how many components Zelazny's stories have to them, and how effortlessly he brings them all together at the end. I mean, we've got all the players and their companions, sure, but then there's also Lynette, Larry, the Experiment Man, the Great Detective, Bubo, the Slitherers--EVERYONE gets a chance to contribute something to the final scene. You're not left wondering, "But what about ____? What happened to him?" It's all so perfect.

    (Oh, and one of my very favorite moments from the entire book--not just this chapter--is when the Count straight-up murders Morris and MacCab. There's just something about the way Zelazny writes the Count's movements. So awesome.)

    Anyway, I know there's a certain bias to be had here (since I just finished reading the book), but Lonesome October may just be my favorite Zelazny novel. It's just that good.

    (Of course, if I were to read Lord of Light next week, I'd probably change my vote to that. Whatever!)

    1. Zach: Is it just me, or did you not actually bold a line in that passage? I wanna know which one you were referring to!

      Whoops! I'll sometimes compose posts in email and either save them as a draft or email them to myself. This will occasionally make the formatting all weird, so I'll have to remove the formatting and set it back as plain text and add the formatting back in. Looks like I forgot to restore the bold there. I'll edit the post once I finish here.

      The line was the last sentence in the paragraph. "It comes in handy on particularly cold nights, too."

      Zach: Anyway, I know there's a certain bias to be had here (since I just finished reading the book), but Lonesome October may just be my favorite Zelazny novel. It's just that good.

      I think I feel the same way. I can't give you an exact quote, but I do recall that Zelazny has acknowledged a certain debt to the hard-boiled noir detective stories on his body of work. As much as I like the genre, it seldom emphasized tight plotting, instead focusing on a briskly moving narrative. Raymond Chandler, an author I love, has said, on the subject of writing such stories, "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand."

      I think this influence is most in evidence in NINE PRINCES, but you can see it elsewhere as well. I certainly don’t mean it as a dig or to imply that one type of story is better than another, but rather that a frenetic pace and a complicated plot tend not to mix well, and I’ve found that Zelazny’s stories tend to be written to be fast-paced, and while they’re always literate and entertaining, the structure of the plots tend to be fairly straightforward.

      However, with Lonesome October, he manages to get both of them together, and it’s as sophisticated a merging of the two styles as I’ve ever seen, not just in Zelazny’s corpus, but *anywhere*. The plotting is extraordinarily tight, and I love how everything ties back at the end. As you’ve observed, there are no loose ends. (Except for maybe Needle’s absence at the final ceremony. I like to imagine the Count tearing across the sky in his world-warping way, with Needle flapping along, far behind him, “Hey, wait up, boss! I can’t fly that fast.)

      It’s criminally underexposed. I don’t know anyone who knows of who doesn’t love it. My friend Frederick, whom I’ve mentioned, and who commented here a couple times, wanted to get a personal hard copy for himself, but for some reason it’s out of print, and used copies are cost a fortune. I’m glad that Speaking Volumes released an audio book, but it’s shame that a physical copy is so hard to obtain.

      Another thing I really like is Trent Zelazny’s account of the story, that Roger loved Snuff as much as we do. It’s a little thing, but knowing that makes me love the story even more.

  2. I finished my long, belated re-reading of Lonesome October under the perigee light of December's full moon. It was like visiting an old friend. Show me your teeth!