No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, March 26, 2007

REREAD: A Night in the Lonesome October -- Roger Zelazny

It's years since I read this, the final novel that Zelazny published before his death in 1995, and I suspect I only skimmed when I first acquired it. I certainly don't remember it being as witty, entertaining and sly as I found it this time! And there is so much more going on than is actually told....

Technically, this is a 'talking animal' book: the protagonist, Snuff, is a watchdog -- which he likes much better than what he was before -- and also a kind of familiar, a calculator, who assists his master (Jack, no surname, well-known for his Knife) in certain magical undertakings, and keeps an eye on assorted bound creatures (the Thing in the Mirror, the Thing in the Trunk etc). Jack, it turns out, is a player in an ancient Game which is played out in those years when there's a full moon on the night of Halloween. October is a busy time for Jack and Snuff, and for the other players: Crazy Jill and her familiar Greymalk; the Count in his coffin, and Needle the bat; Rastov the mad monk and Quicklime the snake; the Doctor; the Great Detective and his trusty sidekick; Larry Talbot with his keen eye for Snuff's nature; a Druid with an Owl; and a sloppy pair of occultists who appear unencumbered by non-human assistants.

Aim of the game? To bring about the return of the Great Old Ones -- or not. The Openers want to open the gate and bring back Shub-Niggurath and his / her / its friends. The Closers are innately conservative, in that they don't wish to be enslaved or destroyed or munched upon. Part of the fun is working out who's an Opener and who's a Closer: part, at least on first reading, is working out the origin of each character. Jack's clearly based on Jack the Ripper, and there are references to him carrying around dripping packages; but he doesn't seem to be any kind of misogynistic mass murderer, and on the one occasion he's violent (as a result of a curse) it's to save Snuff. The Great Detective, meanwhile, creeps around in cunning disguises -- but it's not much use dressing up as a woman when Jack's watchdog already has your scent.

Most of the novel's set in or near London, in the late 19th century, though one episode occurs in a dream-world strongly reminiscent of Lovecraft's Kadath. The outcome's unexpected, the detail delightful, and a rich tapestry of backstory's lightly sketched -- the witch in Dijon who distracted Jack, the Indian village destroyed by the Plague, that time in Alexandria ...

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