So, just before October began, I declared my plan to read Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October (1993) in the way that a lot of dedicated fans do: one chapter per day. This post is a summary of my thoughts of that charming experience!
Before I share my thoughts on the novel, a little background: this was Zelazny’s last novel, and the one that he considered his best work. Despite the high praise it received, it went out of print rather quickly and might have remained in obscurity except for dedicated fans who kept its spirit alive until it finally received it well-deserved reprinting.
The book tells the story of one particularly tumultuous October, and it has 32 chapters: one for each day of the month, plus an introductory chapter. This has led fans to observe the tradition of reading it one chapter a night over the Halloween month. I first learned about the book from the io9 post linked above back in 2018, and decided to read it this way myself.
The novel is narrated by Snuff, a much smarter-than-average dog who is the loyal companion and assistant to a man named Jack, who has a particular aptitude with knives. To say too much about the story would ruin some of the charm, but suffice to say that Jack and Snuff have arrived in a sleepy village outside of London to participate in a ritual contest that happens every now and again when the stars are right. The participants must gather intelligence, figuring out who the other players are, which side they are on, and even where the ritual must be performed on Halloween night. Each of the other competitors has their own animal companion, which includes a cat, a snake, a rat, a raven, and more. And on that final climactic night, everyone will come together in a clash with many twists and turns and not a few unexpected appearances.
Part of the joy in the reading, for me, was figuring out who each of the players is, though a look at the cover will give you some pretty big hints! Zelazny’s book is really an homage, or even a love letter, to the classic monsters of both literature and the real world, with a ritual centered on beings from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. There are “good guys” and “bad guys” among this motley crew, but it is hard to tell at first who is who, since they are all, in a sense, monsters! The book will in fact keep you guessing to the very end.
The animal companions do most of the legwork throughout the novel, and Zelazny makes their interactions, which are in character for their species, a lot of fun. Of particular charm is the relationship between Snuff the dog and Greymalk the cat, who have more than one reason to be enemies but end up having a much more complicated interaction.
Having done it now, I can say that it is really a great idea to read the book one chapter a day. It is very much a Halloween book, and these little bites keep you in the Halloween spirit the whole month. Also, by reading it a chapter a day, you have time to digest the newest little revelations that Snuff and the rest of the players have uncovered. The book is overall quite light-hearted, with whimsical illustrations by Gahan Wilson to highlight each chapter, and it ends with one last joke that I saw coming a mile away but nonetheless really enjoyed.
So, I can recommend A Night in the Lonesome October, and reading it over the month of October! It is a great way to enjoy the spooky holiday. I may read it again this way when the next Halloween rolls around…