Annotation: A Night in the Lonesome October

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.”
“Me, too.”
“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?”
“Of course.”
“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.

Annotation: Lord of Light

Roger Zelazny, like Ray Bradbury, is an author whose prose reads like poetry. His writing style is sparse, yet every word evokes an image of clarity. I wish I could write like him, and hope to come close someday. He’s written dozens of novels, singly and in collaboration, and every one of them is well respected by his former peers (he died in 1995). Every author has one book, however, that leaps above the rest, more well known and lauded than any other. For Zelazny, that book would be Lord of Light. For good reason: the novel is nothing short of amazing. I haven’t felt so involved in a story in years.

The very concept of the story is fairly unique. It takes place in the distant future, on a colony world that has no contact with Earth. The original colonists developed a technology to transfer the soul of a person into a new body, and have attained virtual immortality through this use of reincarnation. They have also developed their psychokinetic abilities, or Aspects and Attributes, through training, drugs, and other methods, allowing them to act functionally as Gods to their descendants, who have restarted civilization from scratch. In particular, these “gods” simulate early Hindu or Vedic mythology, in trait and name.

Even demons and spirits exist in the world, the original inhabitants of the planet who long ago abandoned their physical bodies to become immortal beings of pure energy. The whole setup for establishing a modern science fiction tale couched in Vedic myth is brilliantly done, with nary a hole in the logic to be seen.

The tale centers around a disillusioned First (an original colonist) named Sam, better known as Siddhartha. He takes issue with the restrictions on civilization placed by the other Gods, in particular feeling that they have been hindering the society’s advancement in order to maintain the balance of power on the side of the Gods. He strives to undermine these efforts, taking on the role of the Buddha in order to establish a counter (yet complementary) movement among the people. He also bargains with the demons whom had been locked away centuries before, freeing them to fight against the Gods.

Most of the story takes place in the past. The first chapter involves Yama, God of Death, bringing Sam back into the physical world, after spending 50 years dispersed as energy in the troposphere of the planet. Each chapter after that is really a prologue, detailing Sam’s previous effort to battle the Gods (which ended with his spirit scattered across the planet, which brings us full circle), until the last two chapters, which deal with the final battle.

The entire adventure is truly epic and brilliantly done, with marvelous scenes of action and tension. That is not why I am so enamored with the story, however. It comes down to people. Zelazny was able to make me genuinely care about the people behind their Godhood. There is no clear good versus evil, everyone has a bit of both. Their conflict is a matter of opinions leading towards the same ideal, and no matter what side they may be on now, they have all fought and bled and cried and loved together in the past. They may be powerful and immortal, but they are still human.

It’s a question always at the forefront of my interests, and many of my favorite books address it either directly or indirectly: what makes us human? Where does humanity lie, and how do we retain that as we change and evolve and step beyond ourselves? Lord of Light is a book that addresses it directly, I think.

I would recommend Lord of Light to anyone, barring perhaps those who have problems with religious reinterpretation. Or perhaps not bar them at all, since they could most benefit from a new perspective. I suppose the question becomes whether the goal in reading it is to educate and enlighten, or merely to entertain.

Zelazny, Roger. Lord of Light. New York: Eos, 2004.