Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny and some HPL thoughts

As I was listening to the fine folks at Sanctum Secorum talk about Roger Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome October (1993) in their excellent podcast, I was prompted to pick the book up myself. It's been several years since last reading it and it seemed time - even if it nowhere near Halloween.

For those of you not in the know, A Night in the Lonesome October (ANitLO) is Zelazny's final solo novel and one of the greatest love letters to HPL, the Universal monsters, and many other touchstones of supernatural horror from days gone by.

Snuff on the prowl
Narrated by the grizzled hound, Snuff, ANitLO, is the wonderfully macabre story of what happens in and near London during the run up to Halloween in 1887. The moon is to be full, and assorted individuals, all with roots in historical or literary characters of a dark nature, will come together on the month's final evening to either open or fight to keep closed a gateway for the Elder Gods to invade the Earth.

If you think that sounds like a dozen other HPL-inspired stories, you're right. But Zelazny isn't just telling some warmed-over story for the umpteenth time. First, there's the homage aspect. Snuff's master is a man called Jack, possessor of, and sometimes possessed by, a great silver, rune-etched knife. Through the fog-choked streets and alleys of London, Jack prowls in search of things to help him on the 31st.

the Count
Some of the players, for what they are doing is called by some the Game, are rooted in historical persons, such as the Mad Russian Monk, Rastov, and the grave robbing Morris and McCab. Others' origins lie in fiction, among them the Good Doctor and the experiment man, and the Count. There's a great article at the Lovecraft eZine that catalogues all the references. Definitely don't spoil some of the book's best surprises by reading the article first.

Each player has a familiar, responsible for certain aspects of the Game. Snuff, for instance is a calculator. Based on the domiciles of the players and other mystical points of reference, he must determine where the gate can be opened come the night of the full moon. He also serves Jack as a companion and watchdog. Each night, for the hour following midnight, the familiars can speak and be understood by their human companions. During the day, the familiars can only speak to each other.

This is my favorite Zelazny book, and that includes the original Amber series and Lord of Light. His writing is clean and clear, while still building up enough atmosphere to bring foggy Victorian London and its suburbs to life. And, while it's a real paean to the genre icons Zelzany grew up with, I grew up on those same things. I watched Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi on Saturday mornings when I was a kid. I read Lovecraft and true crime books about Jack the Ripper and stories about witches. There's a connection between the heart of this book and me that exceeds anything I encountered in his other works.

Each chapter of this very fun book has an illustration by the mighty Gahan Wilson (whom I just wrote about here). They're brilliantly simple. With just a few lines and some cross-hatching, Wilson adds a nice extra dollop of spookiness to the story. According to the never-wrong Wikipedia, Zelazny had wanted to do something with Wilson all the way back in the late seventies, but it took almost fifteen years for it to happen. Well, it was worth the wait. If you haven't read it yet, don't wait until next Halloween and deprive yourself of an incredibly fun read.


Listening to the Appendix N Book Club podcast about At the Mountains of Madness (with guest, Sanctum Sercorum member, Bob Brinkman), it got me thinking about the difference between Lovecraft's best stories and my favorites. You'd think there'd be no distinction between the two, but there is.

First, let me clarify: what I'm calling my favorites are really the stories that actually kicked me in the gut and stick in my mind the most. Looking back, maybe their impact can be attributed to my age when I read them, but to this day, forty-odd years later, the effect is similar. Here's a list.

"The Outsider"  1926
"Cool Air"         1926
"The Statement of Randolph Carter"  1920
"Rats in the Walls"   1924
"The Lurking Fear"  1923

The big thing that binds these stories together is their EC Comics-style finales, each one a killer last page reveal. In the first it's the identity of the narrator, in "Cool Air" the true nature of Dr. Muñoz's experiments, and so on in the rest. Each tale's lasting, gory, impact, arises from it's closing-page denouement. That final twist of the knife or mallet to the face comes at the end, revealing deeper meaning in and lending deeper resonance to the preceding pages of terror. Lovecraft may have seen himself as standing apart from the pulp horror crowd, but he could write a pure pulp tale with the best of them.

None of them, other than a minor reference here or there, is really connected to HPL's mythos. These are all pretty much standalone horror tales that any number of other horror scribes might have set to paper.

You know, the thing about the big HPL stories - "Call of Cthulhu," "The Dunwich Horror," "The Shadow Out of Time," - is they're pretty damn big on exposition packed with exposition. Reading "The Whisperer in the Darkness," long one of my favorites, I was struck by the lack of real suspense and the surfeit of explanation. It's a great story, with some mind-blowingly cool ideas, but it doesn't possess the slow-building terror I thought it did. The same went for "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," and "The Dunwich Horror."

Much of the impact of the big stories comes from that great cosmic indifference that defines Lovecraftian fiction. It's a big, existential terror that screams "You are less than insignificant in the face of the nameless chaos that swarms at the heart of the universe." Unfortunately, since I don't believe that, the power of that to scare me is limited. So, while the creepiness of fish-human hybrids, invisible monsters, brains in jars, and such is really creepy, the real effect Lovecraft was going for doesn't work for me.

But, what does work is that nasty, last page disclosure in those stories I listed. They're all early works, written while HPL was still finding his way, discovering a way to express that fear-of-the-void that became the hallmark of his most important stories. They're the ones, though I remember, that still send a chill up my spine in ways the big stories don't.


  1. I loved ANitLO. I should probably revisit it. I also find it interesting that your pick of favorite Lovecraft stories is very similar to mine, and for the same reasons. I was a young teenager when I read those, so that, as you said, might have something to do with it.

    1. I think I read most of HPL before high school, and I don't think existential dread works really well on an 12 year old. Maybe if'd read them first a little later the impact would've been more significant. Inbred tunnel monsters, half-ripped off faces, THAT'S how to scare a 12 year old.

  2. I love "The Lurking Fear." And it's one of those HPL stories not dependent on Cthulhu Mythos hooks at all. Straight up horror.

    1. It's one of HPL's stories I think could be filmed straight and scare the snot out of people. Sadly, all three versions stink to high heaven.

      I think the main reason some folks are so down on the creepy-as-all-get-out "Dreams in the Witch House" is because of its straight horror trappings, especially the cross working on Hezekiah. But, yeah, HPL in straight up horror mode works great.

  3. NiLO was a great book. At least I think it was. I'd love to re-read it, but I loaned out my copy years ago and never got it back. Dang it.

    1. That always stinks. I'm missing a couple of books the same way right now.