A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This review is specifically of the ebook edition published by Farrago in 2016. I'd read this book before, in paperback, I think from the library (since it isn't in my large and battered collection of Zelazny; I'm a considerable fan); but took the opportunity of the ebook being on offer from Netgalley for review to read it again. It had been many years, and I didn't remember much about it, so it was effectively a first-time read.
One of the things I wanted to see was how good a job they'd done on the ebook conversion, and I'm happy to report that it was an excellent one. Often, ebook editions of pre-ebook-era paperbacks suffer from a great many errors in optical character recognition, and publishing houses don't always put in the considerable work necessary to correct them (looking at you, Open Road, and your pathetic job with Andre Norton's Sargasso of Space). This edition is very clean indeed. I spotted one missing quotation mark, and three occasions when the capital "I" in the exclamation "Ia!" had been misrendered as a lower-case "l" at the start of a sentence. That was it; apart from that, no typos that I noticed (and I usually notice them).
Before I discuss the book itself, one more thing about this edition. It's illustrated. I personally found the illustrations cartoony, and at odds with the tone of the text. Its humour and absurdity are understated, whereas the cartoonish distortions of the illustrations were much more extreme.
A couple of things caught my attention about the writing of the book itself. It contains the characteristic Zelaznian word "occurred," which, while it isn't in all of his books, is in many of them, used in a particular way (something strange manifesting itself with no obvious agency). I always look for it in a Zelazny, and am oddly pleased when I find it. It also contains a few Americanisms, despite its British setting, such as "siding" for the outside of a house, and "off of," but since the nationality of the narrator is not established, this wasn't much of a problem.
There were a few passages of alternating dialog, mostly between the dog and the cat, which I found hard to follow because they lacked enough dialog tags to identify who was speaking. I had to go back and count, and that's always disruptive to my immersion in the story.
The story, told in a kind of diary (though it's never explained how the narrator, a dog, keeps a diary), chronicles the 31 days of October, building up to a ritual at the full moon, which will either cause the Lovecraftian Elder Gods to manifest on Earth or prevent them from doing so. Which one it is depends on the manoeuvrings of the "players," who form two factions, the Openers and the Closers. It's initially not clear who belongs to which faction; the dog, Snuff, and his master Jack (by implication, Jack the Ripper), are Closers, trying to prevent the manifestation of the gods. There's a druid; the Count (Dracula, though the name is never used); Larry Talbot, the American werewolf in London; Crazy Jill the witch; a mad Eastern European monk; the vicar; the Great Detective (Sherlock Holmes, again never named but clear enough); the Good Doctor (also not named, but obviously Frankenstein); a pair named Morris and MacCab, who I couldn't place as a reference, but who seem to be graverobbers similar to Burke and Hare; and a number of animals, who can talk to one another, but can only talk to the humans at certain times. Snuff builds alliances and shares information, and even though there are ultimately two factions, there's a division that cuts across and beyond the factions, between what I might call sympathetic and unsympathetic characters. Because my sympathies were engaged both for and against people (and animals) on both sides, the narrative exerted a firm grasp and made sure I wanted to know how it all worked out. While Zelazny's characters are seldom deeply complex, they're always distinctive, and despite the large cast it was easy to remember who was who and what their previous moves had been.
This is a skilfully written work, produced late in Zelazny's too-short life, which uses allusion to commonly understood horror tropes and characters to create a rich situation without spelling everything out. That's a tactic that can easily backfire, if the author just introduces the trope and moves on without doing anything with it, but Zelazny builds on his tropes and gives them new twists that make them more interesting. He maintains a constant tension between a matter-of-fact tone with a note of irony; usually indirect or allusive reference to horror; and sympathetic characters doing their best in a bizarre situation, and balances the three with great ability. He then brings it to an unexpected, clever, and satisfying conclusion.
When I came to write this review, I found that I'd marked the book as read, with a three-star rating. No doubt that was my memory of reading it some years before, and a reflection of my general dislike for the horror genre. Re-reading it gave me a greater appreciation for what Zelazny has managed to pull off here, and I enjoyed it considerably.
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