Playing for Keeps and for Fun: Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October

A group of interesting characters congregate just outside of London for an important event due to occur on the night of Halloween. We discover they are playing a Game, the rules of which seems fluid and unclear to the uninitiated, and the stakes of which are (literally) world-changing.

Players are paired up, one human and one animal (there are exceptions), the relationship between the two seems to vary, some animals are familiars, others simply companions. They divide into two groups: openers and closers but usually try to keep their allegiance a secret. What they open and close, we don’t know until close to the end of the book, but whatever it is, it’s opening or closing will take place on October 31st.

Snuff, the narrator of the book is a watchdog and is paired up with Jack. He befriends Graymalk, a cat, and other animals, all involved with the game and introduced as the players discover each other. As the month progresses, they spy on each other, exchange information, go into town to collect unusual items in odd shops and graveyards, and attempt to keep the outside world unaware their grim business. Something complicated by the rather odds errands that must be run and activities the players must accomplish to ready themselves for the final night of the month.

This book is about having fun and playing games. Towards this end, Zelazny does several very clever things: by making the narrator a dog (an animal not usually associated with the fantastic), he draws the reader in with friendly familiarity. Things become gruesome, but never really feel like they do. There’s always a certain coziness to it all. That and the whimsy brought about by having the action narrated from the point of view of the animals, are two of the things that make this book a fun read.

Familiarity is also key in recognizing the characters even though they are not precisely identified. This is an tribute to classics of genre literature and old black and white movies after all, references to H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Conan Doyle, Lord Dunsany, Mary Shelley and many more abound—a partial list may be found in the book’s dedication. All these references constitute another game in this book: one between the writer and the readers.

Another clever thing is the Game the players are playing. With its arcane rules, it sounds like it would make a great LARP or RPG. (And I’m constantly amazed this hasn’t been done yet and if it has, why haven’t I heard of it?) This is something Zelazny must have been aware of. His characters talk about playing the Game, and while the stakes are high, they always see themselves as players before they see themselves as anything else. It doesn’t matter if they plan to kill each other, there are rules to be followed, and traditions to be kept. These rules and the secretiveness of the players give him a reason for the players to withhold information from each (and from the reader), and allowing him to control the pacing with a master’s touch.

Speaking of control, I’ve been told some people read one chapter of the book per day starting October first (each chapter corresponds to the events that occur that day). Frankly, I don’t know how they do it, I usually go through it in one sitting, maybe flipping through it once in a while to have a look at Gahan Wilson’s illustrations featured at the start of each chapter. Either way, all at once or slowly drawn out, this is a great read for October.

René Walling is a fan of SF, animation and comics, this has led him to co-chair Anticipation, the 2009 Worldcon, be involved with fps magazine for more than a decade, and start Nanopress, a Canadian small press. He looks forward to living on Mars where he would benefit from having more than 24 hours in a day.


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