Have you ever been in a situation in which you really liked a book but a few minor issues are preventing it from being one of the perfect ones? Well, this is how I feel about A Night in the Lonesome October.
Before I continue further, a few disclaimers:
- I don’t want my review to sound like a rant. Most of the things I didn’t like are just personal preferences of how I would’ve liked the story to develop.
- To my shame and regret, I did not get the reference in the title until Vel pointed it out. I’ve shared many times that I rarely read poetry. Poe is one of the few authors who made me give poetry a chance. However, since I mostly remember feelings and not verses, I did not make the connection with Poe’s Ulalume.
With those out of the way, let’s begin!
What Is It All About?
Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October is a lighthearted and fun way of talking about and presenting philosophical musings about the world, be it physical or metaphysical. The story is told through the perspective of Snuff, a watchdog, who is a companion and part of duo, which participates in the Game. There are two sides in this competition – the Openers and the Closers – and each faction has the task of opening or closing, respectively, the Gateway through which the Old Gods can enter the earthly realm. Regardless of the faction, each team has to prepare certain tools and items to ensure the victory of its faction. The outcome of the Game is decided on All Hallows’ Eve after a long ceremonial battle.
Why Is It Fun to Read?
Unlike many other fantasy books, you don’t get a voluminous tome describing a vast non-existent universe to minute details. On the contrary, the narrative is short and it’s comprised of daily diary entries. There are no long explanations and descriptions of the setting to unnecessarily prolong the story and distract from the main plot. Given the names of many of the characters and the references to other books and authors, it’s pretty self-explanatory that the story is set in Victorian times. The rest is left to one’s own imagination, while Snuff shares what he’s learned during the day and how it would benefit his master’s participation in the competition. This makes it easy to immerse yourself in the Game right from the start. I actually made a cheat sheet in my notebook to remember all of the master-companion pairs competing.
Speaking of references, despite my missing the nod to Poe’s Ulalume, I did get most of the other references. The moment I realised there were hints to other literary works, I started going back and jotting down all of the hints to the identities of the competitors. Some, such as the Great Detective, were very easy. However, I still don’t know who Jack is? Is he the one who broke his crown or was he the Jack who roamed the Whitechapel district of London? This ambiguity makes it easy to view the characters as a collection of personality traits, which follow a slightly different set of rules and interact with each other in a very interesting way because of it.
Another reason to love Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October is the portrayal of the Great Detective. Another favourite character of mine. Admittedly, he only resembles the real one, but the discrepancies with the original are made out of respect to his creator. While Sherlock was a man of reason and only versed in the various religious texts at the time, despite not being a believer himself, Arthur Conan Doyle was a spiritual man. The proof lies in the Great Detective’s confession that there might be a more metaphysical explanation to the odd events happening in the story and his willingness to accept it.
The Missing Parts
With a risk of repeating myself, these are only my personal preferences. There are two things which I felt were missing or might have been handled differently in the story:
- The Game: Right from the start you learn there is a deadly competition. You gradually learn some of the terminology, but everything is veiled in mysticism. However, by the time you find out all you need to know, somehow the secretiveness seems unfounded.
- The final night: It felt a bit anticlimactic. There was a big build-up and then the ending was rushed. I also expected at least one Old God poking through the Gateway. On several occasions Snuff stated that this All Hallows’ Eve would be different from other Games, but nothing out of the ordinary, at least in terms of the story, occurred.
In short, A Night in the Lonesome October was a very fun read and I recommend it as a way to get in the mood for Halloween. Despite the minor issues I had with the story, its lightheartedness and humour are a good way to battle gloominess of the cold autumn and winter months. And before you say this doesn’t work in the real world, read it. If it made you smile, then it has worked its magic on you.
Ah! Now here is a classic! I am still grateful to the friend who introduced me to Zelazny’s works, but mostly for suggesting this book of his in particular. It tickles me in ways few novels have – with it’s references to a multitude of popular characters and plays on words, with its easy going narrative and twisting plot line. Each page offers another little clue to the overall puzzle, enticing me to find out how the pieces fit together. It keeps grim topics lighthearted, and delivers on all Victorian tropes it touches without the pomposity usually related to the era.
Speaking of references, I wonder if Nelly has realised where the title is from? She is a big fan of his poetry! (Poe’s poem Ulalume)
I’m finding it really difficult to write about this book, considering I love it so much. This is because my near adoration for it comes from its details, and sharing even a few of those would inevitably take something away from your experience of this book.
Who is who?
Especially the first time I read the novel, I was on the edge of my seat trying to guess which of the characters appears in which other popular writings. There were a few I was unfamiliar with (Larry Talbot, for example), and others I’d of course heard of but hadn’t read about yet (Dracula, of all, was one). Needless to say, my reading list expanded after I had identified a character – I’d be quite interested in their backstory, which further informed their actions in A Night in the Lonesome October. I am somewhat ashamed at how long it actually took me to identify some of the more obvious players in the Game, and must admit there are still some I am not fully certain of. But then neither is the internet – this book has provoked some long forum discussions where people have suggested equally valid possibilities for inspiration of the characters in the book. And this is one of the novel’s best aspects – you may come up with your own interpretations of the personas, or their companions, or even for some of the side characters.
The main storyline in the book centres on the Game, where players take sides on whether to open the way for the Old Gods from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, or to keep the way closed and the world away from their reach. The ceremony occurs extremely rarely – when the right kind of people gather at the right time in the right place, and the right time is when the full moon falls on Halloween eve – a few times every century. Throughout the novel, many of the stories of the players’ companions in particular are given more details, many of which I sympathise with. I find it interesting to consider what would it be like if either side wins. If there was such a hard reset button in reality, like the aforementioned Old Gods materialising and affecting the world, would it ultimately create a better world? Is humanity capable of reaching the thought state where we care for ourselves as a race, and for our world as a whole, as opposed to individual daily struggles? Or is this best left to some higher governing power to take the rains and stop us from our current drifting this way and that?
Yeah, I’ve been reading this book a lot, did I mention that?
A Night in the Lonesome October is a delight for me, one I am proud to return to year after year every October. Along with a few melancholic songs reminiscing the end of summer, root veg soups, all things spooky and cosy sweaters, this book is a staple of my autumns. I still manage to uncover a reference I haven’t noticed before or to come up with an alternative background for someone. Do you have any habits or rituals this time of year – books, songs or films you like to get back to, or a place you visit? Whose side would you take in the Game, if you played?
Edition Published: Kindle, October 1st 2016, First Published: 1994
Language book read in:English