After reading Lord of Light, I decided to go on and read a bit more Zelazny, opting for A Night In the Lonesome October, which is a witty, funny, charming horror story. Written in first person, the novel centers around Snuff, the canine companion/familiar to Jack the Ripper. The story is broken down into days of October, leading up to the climax on Halloween night.
The premise breaks down like this: every 100 years, people of certain inclinations gather around a point of power (the point changes every time… it might be in Bangladesh one century, Paris the next, et cetera), and undertake a ritual concerning the Elder Gods, who have been locked away for ages. Some come to close the gate that will appear, others come to open it and release the Old Ones. If there is a deadlock in power between the openers and closers, it defaults to the closers.
The being known as Jack the Ripper is an old hand at these ceremonies, having attended several in the past. Other folks who show up over the course of the story include a witch, Count Dracula, Frankenstein (monster in tow), a mad monk, a demon worshiping pastor, and several others (even Sherlock Holmes makes a few appearances). Since the story is from the perspective of Jack’s familiar, most of the interaction that occurs is with the familiars of the other “players”.
There’s a lot more to the process of the ceremony than just collecting items of magic and sacrifice to help sway the gate in your direction. Since the location changes, no one knows where it is (as Snuff comments, there were times when no one figured it out correctly, even). A good deal of the book involves the deductive efforts of Snuff to calculate the location of the place of power, which involves triangulation based on the domiciles of the players in the area (it is always in the center of that triangulation, but the trick is figuring out where everyone lives, and even who everyone in the Game is).
The edition I have of the book has some delightful illustrations done by Gahan Wilson, which augment the simple narrative style of a dog (albeit a very intelligent one). The very first chapter really establishes the nature of the book quite well:
One night when we were in a graveyard recently an old watchdog came by, though, and we talked for a time.
“Hi. I’m a watchdog.”
“I’ve been watching you.”
“And I’ve been watching you.”
“Why is your person digging a big hole?”
“There are some things down there that he needs.”
“Oh. I don’t think he’s supposed to be doing that.”
“May I see your teeth?”
“Yes. Here. May I see yours?”
“Perhaps it’s all right. Do you think you might leave a large bone somewhere nearby?”
“I believe that could be arranged.” (2)
The simplicity of it really captures the pragmatic attitude of what I imagine a dog’s mind would be. The entire book is spot on in that fashion, though naturally Snuff is far more capable a dog than most, being a familiar (with all the magical augmentation that title connotes).
The “daily journal” style is an interesting choice for the topic, and I think it works quite well to force the reader into a non-omnipotent position, which saves significantly on the amount of explanation of things that is needed. Not everyone knows how everything works and why, and it’s silly that so many stories make that assumption for the sake of exposition and establishing the setting. This book, and others like it, prove that it isn’t necessary in order to have an engaging, involved story. (A trait I’m guilty of myself when writing.)
If I was trying to introduce someone to Zelazny as an author, I’d probably suggest Lord of Light first, but that said, A Night In the Lonesome October is a fun (and relatively fast, weighing in at 280 pages of an easy to read typeface) read that I would happily recommend for the pure enjoyment of it. While the nature of the story is inherently macabre, it is really not very horrific, and I wouldn’t even twinge at giving this to a child to read.
Zelazny, Roger. A Night In the Lonesome October. New York: Avon Books, 1993.