Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Book: Shaggy Dog

 A Night In The Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny, Illustrations by Gahan Wilson, Avon Books, 1993.

Provenance: My company has a book club that meets every month or two, and we vote on a book to read next. I often don't get a chance to read the assigned work, but A Night In the Lonesome October was an option  this time, and I voted for it, figuring that I had a copy on the paperback shelf downstairs, so there would be no excuse not to reread it.

And then I didn't have a copy downstairs. I had given it away or donated it somewhere in the past thirty years. So I went to my local used bookstore, The Page Turner, where I had last donated some books during COVID, and THEY didn't have a copy (though I picked up a couple China Mieville books I didn't know existed while I was there). Finally, I turned to my colleague Sacnoth, who rose from his chair, went to HIS bookshelf, and immediately plucked off a copy. So I had no reason not to read the book.

Review: I loved Zelazny's Nine Princes In Amber series (the first five), and feel he was a master at the novella format. This one was OK and amusing, a bit of lighter fare. Its chapters stretch out over the month of October, reaching Halloween Night itself. On those occasions when a full moon occurs on Halloween, there is a battle between the Openers and Closers. The Openers wish to bring down the gates of reality and bring the Lovecraftian Old Ones into the world, while the Closers want to keep that from happening. So far, the Closers have won.

Our narrator is Snuff, an enchanted dog who calculates the location of the rite based on where all the Players are based. His master is Jack, as in Jack the Ripper. Spring-heeled Jack is a favorite of SF/Fantasy authors, and such luminaries as Philip Jose Farmer, Fritz Lieber, and Harlan Ellison have used him in the past. This Jack is a Good Guy, a Closer, who keeps various Things in his house, that Snuff carefully guards and keeps contained (the Thing in the Steamer Trunk, the Thing in the Circle, and the Things in the Mirror). Snuff, as the calculating companion of the pair, tries to figure out where the rite is going to be, based on the locations of the the other players, which is made difficult by not knowing who exactly the players are, and if any of them die over the course of the month.

And there are plethora of other players and potential players. Zelazny reaches back to old Universal Horror films than by original source material. There is the Good Doctor and his animated creation, the Great Detective and his assistant, the coffin-sleeping Count, a witch, a Rasputin-like monk, a pair of grave robbers invoking Burke and Hare, and an evil Cthulhu-worshiping clergyman. Each (or most) of the players have their own companions, who Snuff communicates with. The horde of players, potential players, and companions is a bit overwhelming, but I was fortunate in Sacnoth left a bookmark with all the information noted down.

The pacing is interesting in that each chapter is a day in October, leading up the fateful rite at the end of the month. Each night Snuff goes out, gathers information, walks the area (outside London, presumably Victorian-era) and makes his calculations. His frequent frenemy in his travels is Graymalk, the cat familiar of the witch, Jill, who are definitely Openers. A less-hospitable Opener is the Cultist Curate, a worshipper of the old ones (Nyarlathotep gets name-checked), whose companion is a white raven named Tekela (invoking the cries of the albino penguins from Lovecraft's At The Mountains of Madness).

Openers and Closers get along well early on, leading to a graveyard scene where all are gathering materials for the ceremony, and trading body parts they dig up with each other ("Who needs a femur?"). After that, things get darker fast, with bodies falling and trust failing, ending in the rite itself. There is a long evening where cat and dog are sucked into Lovecraft's Dreamlands, with a tour of the entire area. With such a large crew of characters, Zelazny keeps a lot of balls in the air at once, and the finale wraps up all the loose ends.

The book is accented with illustrations by Gahan Wilson, A cartoonist whose blobby, lumpy characters have been found in SF magazines, Playboy, and National Lampoon. Wilson also created the first map of Arkham, Massachusetts, so he has the proper Lovecraftian chops.

Ultimately, this is a shaggy dog story about Snuff, a literal shaggy dog. There is light humor and puns throughout. I know more about old movies and the Cthulhu Mythos now than I did back when I first read it, nearly thirty years ago, and part of the Game for the reader is recognizing who the players are in the greater horror canon. It is a good book to read, a chapter a day, through October, preferably with a cup of hot tea laced with whiskey. 

More later,