Jul 10 2014 9:00am

Humorous Exposition: Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October

Roger Zelazny A Night in the Lonesome October

“I like being a watchdog better than what I was before [Jack] summoned me and gave me this job.”

When I encountered this line for the first time, on page 2 of Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October, I cracked up. I didn’t get the line’s full genius, though, until I finished the book.

See, Zelazny writes science fiction and fantasy so dense even the most cursory outline of his novels makes them sound like crackfic. Take Creatures of Light and Darkness, for example: the late stage of a civil war between cybernetically enhanced maybe-gods at the end of time, featuring temporal kung fu, blind tinkering Norns, banjo-playing revolutionaries, a quest for a pair of holy tennis shoes, dueling augurs, poetic interpolation, prophecy computers, the Possibly Proper Death Litany, a centaur, God, and, as Pandora would say, “complex tonality.” Yet, at something like 50,000 words, it’s less than half the standard length of a novel. Most books would strain to include any two of these conceits, but Zelazny wraps them all together in a madcap smorgasbord of invention. He makes it work, I think, because of his genius for suggestion. Why waste narrative space detailing a concept when you can drop a single perfect line and let the reader build her own conclusions?

The sentence at the top of the article is my favorite example. A Night in the Lonesome October is nuts—an enormous monster mash featuring Dracula (sorry, “The Count”), witches, Lovecraftian vicars, Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, et al as participants in a Game of mysterious significance. (No, not of Thrones.) Our first-person narrator, naturally, is Jack the Ripper’s dog, Snuff. He very much likes being a watchdog. He’s quite good at it. And, as we learn in Chapter One: he likes being a watchdog better than he liked what he used to be.

This one sentence does more expository work than most backstory chapters.

It tells everything you need to know about Snuff and Jack. The simple language says ‘dog,’ but its slight edge suggests the hardboiled voice of detective novels and Zelazny’s own Chronicles of Amber. And that word, summoned—whatever Snuff was before, it was something you could summon. A demon might fit the bill, or an angel, or some horrible squamous thing from beyond time. Jack, we learn here, is (along with his other proclivities) a person who summons things—normally not a good sign, but Snuff seems nice enough to the reader, so maybe Jack is too. And on the whole, the space from which Jack summoned Snuff sounds worse than Earth (viz. the singing understatement of “better”), which in turn suggests all sorts of multiversal horror pits beyond our little circle of firelight. Snuff’s summoning isn’t a plot point in the novel. He’s never released from his doggie shell or anything. It’s a single line that builds an entire world for the book, like a brushstroke mountain in a Watanabe Shiko landscape.

And, of course, it’s a damn good laugh.

Max Gladstone writes books about the cutthroat world of international necromancy: wizards in pinstriped suits and gods with shareholders’ committees. You can follow him on Twitter.

1. vanye
Snuff's owner's identity, while not a central part of the story, is something that the reader should deduce. The "aha" moments of this story should be savored, not thrown in the face. :(
Paul Weimer
2. PrinceJvstin
Zelazny is a master whose mountain many authors are still at the foot of, today. But trying to climb all the same.
Sol Foster
3. colomon
@1, huh? The identity given for Jack in this article is a) incredibly obvious and b) not close to being the full story of his identity.
4. JReynolds
This is easily my favourite Zelazny novel. I think it was the last one he finished before his way-too-early death.
Kate Nepveu
5. katenepveu
I will forever treasure this book for giving me the opportunity to utter the sentence, "The dog is a very low-key narrator." And thereby stop an overhearing friend dead in the middle of the street.

And yes, it's beautifully constructed. The way it handles exposition and the things it leaves unsaid are brilliant.
D. Bell
6. SchuylerH
I've been reading through the early Zelazny recently but, after this, I might just have to sequence-break for October...
Scott Raun
7. sraun
It's really fun to read a chapter per night before bed, starting on September 30th. Hat-tip to Steve Miller & Sharon Lee for that idea.
8. Stevefromtheinternets
Carpe baculum!
I loved this book when I read it; the dog is an extremely likeable (and low key) narrator. The "oh, that Jack" realisation comes pretty early, but it's still a pleasure I'd rather leave to the readers.
9. Null-I
And I just reread it, when I should have been working. And I *still* don't know the identity of Jack! He's been closing doors for an awfully long time...

Zelazny's prose is just charming, isn't it. His dogs --- and men --- ooze sexual appeal, in that rough noir way. Even in this cosy Cthulu novel, which I assume is for a YA audience.

Lovely article Msgr. Gladstone! Looking forward to your third, FF Five
Shelly wb
10. shellywb
The realization came really early for me. I saw the cover and read the first sentence in this review and knew what Jack he must mean. It's not a spoiler when it's obvious.
11. Nicholas Winter
There's a delightful recording of Zelazny reading this work. It's even better than reading it.
Alicia Dodson
12. LynMars
This is one of my absolute favorites of Zelazny's. Corwin was my first "aha!" moment of truly understanding--and appreciating--an unreliable narrator (and is there a more unreliable, yet likeable, narrator than Prince Corwin of Amber? I really can't think of one, given the royal family's natural scheming natures, Corwin's head trauma, who he's telling the story to in the final novel, and so on...).

Snuff has aspects of that unreliability too--a dog is rather loyal to his master, after all, and Jack still does those terrible things--but the perspective is so wonderful, the structure really works, the art is a lot of fun, and the characters wonderfully handled.
Jack Flynn
13. JackofMidworld
This is one of my favorite books, period (it's up there with Good Omens and the entire Dark Tower series.

I always go overboard trying to explain it to friends that it's got everything, it's fanfic done right, it's the best crossover ever, etc, etc. I've only had one copy and loaned it out several times; last time, I got it back when I was helping the loanee carry boxes into a used bookstore to turn stuff in. Luckily, they made us re-box everything and I happened to find it jammed in with a bunch of WoD novels. I qualify that as karmic intervention.

Will have to try the 'read one chapter a night' in September. Sounds like a great idea!
Mig Archey
14. Quilld
Reading this wonderful book -- in October, of course -- is an annual tradition of mine, and it's a delight each and every time.
15. TCWriter
I've been a Zelazny fan since the 1970s (as a teenager I read Doorways in the Sand, still a favorite), but somehow missed this one.

Have to lay my hands on a copy. I'm crawling through the six-volume hardback set of Zelazny's short fiction, so I'll wait until October to read this.
16. Aeolas
Zelazny has always been a favorite of mine. Creatures of Light and Darkness and Lord of Light especially, although I've pretty much liked everything he's ever done. I was sad when he passed away, and I must have missed A Night in Lonesome October. I'll have to pick up a copy.
Stephen Coney
17. earlofwessex
Zelazny was a genius that did so much for the advancement of Sci-fi. The leanness of his style rewards a careful reading, savoring the story. It's a pity that publishers today want volume to the point where they rarely edit manuscripts down in size, they actually encourage writers to inflate single novels into trilogies.

I fear that many younger readers just have no taste for genius like Zelazny's because they have never been exposed to it. They've been flooded with so much fantasy that they consume it like potato chips - finish up one and grab another. Don't reread. Don't savour.

I agree that A Night in the Lonesome October is one of Roger's best. I hope that new readers will continue to be drawn to it. Perhaps some will develop a taste for better writing and start demanding higher standards in prose writing, or at least create a market for the well-written short novel.
18. April Brown
I loved that book SO MUCH. The absolute best part is the Thing Under The Stairs. And that they never let it out. You never find out what it is.

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