Zelazny was a literary master, that’s an undisputable fact, period. The Lord of Light, an ingenious sf masterpiece, or first five books in The Chronicles of Amber series – these are first in a row of books being not only milestones in the evolution of sf/fantasy genres, but also wondrous works of art and literature in general. This review, however, is about something entirely different – a very short (280 small pages, medium font plus illustrations!), stand-alone novel, Zelazny’s last – and one of his own favorites.
It’s illustrated by Gahan Wilson and the illustrations are apt. Very simplistic, maybe even going over into the field of caricature, and capturing some of the dark humor of the book. Could they be better? Yeah, certainly – but anyway they are a quite handsome complement to the text of the book. And let me tell you, A Night In The Lonesome October is a rare gem indeed, Koh-i-Noor of quirky fantasy, smallish but 100% pure.
What could I say to preserve the sense of wonder and ultimate relish coming from reading that book for a first time? I really don’t want to spoil the experience for anyone who hasn’t yet read it. That means that this review won’t be digging deep into plot construction or characters – if you want to know it, read the book 😉
The story takes place in the XIXth century England (1887 is the date most often showing up), during the month of October, when All Hallows Eve comes on a night of a full moon. It’s a time of convergence: various people with special magical abilities come to the same place to contend in a Game the outcome of which can irrevocably change the world. I won’t name the players, discovering their true identities is one of the joys of reading, but I will quote here Zelazny’s dedication:
Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Albert Payson Terhune, and the makers of a lot of old movies
I think that’s quite enough to figure out what needs to be known about the players and the ultimate goal of the Game. The Great Game itself is, however, much more than just enacting a certain ritual in the right place and the right time. It’s rather about taking the measure of others, about forming alliances and making preparations, about observing traditions and breaking them when necessary. It’s also a deadly dance of equally frightening and funny personas, a dance closely observed, abetted and commented on by their familiars – friends and servants in animal form.
The story is told by Snuff – a watchdog living outside of London with his master Jack. He’s much more than a watchdog though – he’s a familiar, a thaumathurgical calculator, a guardian against evil and a beloved friend, but what’s most important for the readers, he’s the guide who takes us deep into the twists and turns of the Game. Snuff is a brilliant narrator; his voice is transparent enough for the readers to easily follow and understand the plot, and singular enough to show his unique personality. His adventures revolve around other beasts and familiars of different players, and most of the story centers on Snuff’s complex relations with Graymalk – a cat, Bubo – a rat, Needle – a bat, and Quicklime – a snake. It’s a brilliant move, to make an animal the narrator of the story, in this case especially. Why?
Because as with all Zelazny’s books, most of A Night In The Lonesome October isn’t really there :). It’s somewhere between the lines, in the mood of the moment, in the actions that speak louder than words, and in the things that are deliberately left unsaid. This book is a wild and crazy mash-up of all things Victorian and classic horror. It’s witty, moody, poetic and funny in turns, and I laughed out loud many, many times. It’s also a loving tribute to the gothic themes in literature and film, irreverent, full of irony and dark humor – but also of sympathy and simple human understanding. And all this is coming from a dog, no less :).
The only minor complaint I have is that it has a really abrupt ending. After all this buildup one could fairly expect a more elaborate finish, especially after one just got addicted! I know the saying that all good things must end, but it doesn’t mean I need to agree with it. Too short! But sooo sweet… (and I know what it says about me, but, heck, it really is!)