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Literature / A Night in the Lonesome October

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A Night in the Lonesome October (1993) is one of Roger Zelazny's last novels, illustrated by Gahan Wilson.

In an October in the late 19th century, a small English village finds itself host to an eclectic group of visitors. They are players in the Game, and on the final night of the month they will declare their allegiances and take sides in a contest that will determine the future of the world. Until then, there are mystic artifacts to locate, rituals to complete, potential allies to court or enemies to incapacitate (cautiously — for appearances can deceive, and a person whose allegiance seems obvious may be working for the other side, or may indeed not be a Player at all). Not to mention complications to deal with, including a mysterious American with an interest in botany, a famous detective with his suspicions roused, and a Player aiming to grab power through methods even his (or her?) allies might balk at...

The novel served as inspiration for the digital board game October Night Games, as well as the Russian Adventure Game Sherlock Holmes: The Return of Moriarty.

This book provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Rastov is always drinking whenever we see him. Quicklime says after Rastov's death that he drank so heavily because he "felt everything" and the alcohol numbed the pain he felt because of it.
  • All Witches Have Cats: Jill is a witch and her animal companion is the cat Greymalk.
  • Ancient Artifact: There are several ancient artifacts in play, including a bowl, a ring, an icon (in the "religious painting" sense), and a pair of wands. Each will add to the power of whichever side possesses them, except the wands; the wands are dedicated one to each side, and can only be used to aid that side's goals.
    • Jack's starlight-gleaming Knife is a manifestation of his curse rather than a Game artifact.
  • And Call Him "George": The "experiment man", although they manage to explain that Kitty would like to be put down now, please, before he does the kitty any permanent harm.
  • Animal Talk: All the animals (including the non-magical ones) can speak to each other in what seems to be the same language. Though, oddly, it appears a werewolf can understand Snuff but not any of the non-canine animals.
  • Animal Testing: One of Jack's opponents attempts to dispose of Snuff by capturing him and delivering him to a vivisectionists' laboratory. The miserable condition of the place and the other animals there is vividly described.
  • As the Good Book Says...: The cultists' sermon is an apocalyptic inversion of the Bible's Song of Solomon.
  • Bad Moon Rising: At one point during the final showdown, the moon turns blood-red and starts dripping.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: Nearly all the Openers are shown being cruel to animals at some point. One attempts to poison Snuff. Another attempts to drown Greymalk in a well. The main villain hunts Needle with a crossbow and tries to get Snuff done in by vivisectionists.
    • The vivisectionists themselves are depicted as gleefully cruel people.
    • The only exception among the Openers is Crazy Jill, who explicitly saved Greymalk from a life of abuse before the story began and is nothing but kind to her and Snuff, despite her and Snuff being on opposite sides.
  • Bait-and-Switch: In one scene, Jack is depicted stalking a woman through foggy London streets in full Jack the Ripper style, and when he catches up with her, he draws his knife — and cuts off something she's wearing which he needs to power a spell, letting the woman go unharmed.
  • Bat Out of Hell: Averted with Needle, who's quite friendly, is not a blood-drinker, and is on the Closers' side.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: It's rather obvious that Jack is that Jack, but he's also a Player and there's a wild rumor among magic-users that he's immortal Cain himself.
  • The Bet: Zelazny wrote this one because someone bet him that he couldn't get readers to root for Jack the Ripper. He won.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Several near the end, including Bubo, Larry Talbot, and the Great Detective. And then there's the Count.
  • Big Friendly Dog: Snuff isn't one, but he's willing to play the part in order to distract potential foes.
  • Capital Letters Are Magic: Snuff describes the vicar ranting about "Creatures of the Night and Unholy Practices and Living Blasphemies and Things Like That".
  • Canine Companion: Snuff the dog is Jack's companion and assistant.
  • Casts No Shadow: Cheeter, thanks to the shadow-pinning rite Owen used to make the squirrel his familiar.
  • Cats Are Mean: Completely averted.
  • Chekhov's Skill: In a blink-and-you'll-miss-it example, there's Bubo's passing mention that he's a pack rat. As in, a type of rodent famous for swapping objects. This attribute plays an important role in the final chapter.
  • City of Gold: In the Dreamlands, even the trash cans are made of semiprecious stone and fine ceramics.
  • Connect the Deaths: It's not murder sites, but a very similar idea, with the characters having to identify a set of mystically-significant locations and then figure out, from the pattern they make, the place where the showdown with the villains will take place.
  • Counterpart Artifacts: The wands, of which one can only be used to Open and the other only to Close.
  • Covers Always Lie: The cover depicts a social gathering of all the players that never happened, and implies that Snuff is the Count's partner when he's actually Jack's. The background characters include a Hot Witch in an Elvira-esque gown; the actual Crazy Jill conceals her youthfulness and wraps her hair with a bandanna.
  • Creepy Crows: The main villain has an albino raven as a familiar.
  • Disposing of a Body:
    • Snuff spends a few days dragging the corpse of a policeman to the river, as Vicar Roberts had murdered the man and left his body close enough to Jack's house to direct unwelcome attention toward Snuff's master.
    • The three dismembered Things and Owen are disposed of by stuffing them in Owen's wicker baskets and setting them on fire.
  • The Dividual: Morris and MacCab are an example of the Syndividual; they're not identical but they function as a single unit, neither ever being mentioned separately or doing anything without the other. They even die simultaneously. Where all the other teams of Players consist of one human and one familiar animal, theirs is the two of them sharing one familiar, the owl Nightwind.
  • Dream Land: H. P. Lovecraft's version, to be precise.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: After the death of his master, Quicklime spends several days getting smashed on fermented windfall fruit.
  • Dynamic Entry: The Count has a beautiful one.
  • Ear Ache:
    • Snuff practically rips the vicar's ear off after he abuses Graymalkin.
    • Snuff himself has a shredded right ear from a past encounter with a zombie.
  • Eldritch Abomination:
    • The Openers want to open The Doorway to let Them in, the Closers are trying to keep it shut.
    • Jack and Snuff have quite a collection of lesser Abominations (the slitherers and Things) confined in various parts of Jack's house.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: The presumed consequence of the gate being opened and the things on the other side being let through. The closers are trying to prevent this. The openers believe they know what the new world will be like and expect to benefit from the change (or, in at least one case, simply have suffered so much that any possible change seems like an improvement.)
  • Evil Only Has to Win Once: The gate may or may not close again, but with Nyarlathotep and his pals on this side, it wouldn't matter much.
  • Evil Versus Evil: When the Things escape, the Thing In The Wardrobe winds up brawling with the Thing In The Steamer Trunk.
  • Evil Versus Oblivion: The Count is evil, but he's also on the side of the Closers, because he likes the world the way it is.
  • Eye of Newt: Features a variety of unusual spell ingredients; at one point the narrator remarks that "Magical rotas sometimes strike me as instructions for lunatic scavenger hunts."
  • Face–Heel Turn: Played with; after Rastov's death, his snake familiar Quicklime tells Snuff and Graymalk that the Druid Owen (an opener) had apparently successfully talked Rastov into switching sides. However, this is defied when Owen himself gets killed, and Owen's familiar Cheeter tells Snuff and Gray that though Owen tried to get Rastov to switch sides, Rastov ultimately refused to do so.
  • The Faceless: Jack gets this status in Gahan Wilson's illustrations. All the other characters are depicted with faces clearly visible, but Jack is shown only from behind or with a raised arm blocking the view of his face.
  • Faking the Dead: In a homage to Dracula's habit of always coming Back from the Dead, the Count gets staked halfway through the novel, then turns up alive and well (or whatever the undead equivalent is) for the big showdown; it turns out he faked his own death to forestall any of the other Players doing it for real.
  • Familiar: About half the characters, as each team of Players consists of a human and their animal companion. Including the narrator: Snuff, Jack's dog.
  • Feigning Intelligence: Bubo pretends to be the Good Doctor's familiar and freshman to the Game. In reality, he saw something he thought he could use to his advantage and knows nothing about the Game.
  • Female Feline, Male Mutt: Graymalk the cat is female and Snuff the dog is male.
  • Flipping the Bird: After The Thing in the Circle's latest Shapeshifting Seducer attempt on Snuff fails once again:
    The Thing in the Circle gave me the paw as I left, and it's hard to turn your leg that way.
  • Flying Broomstick: Jill the witch has one which she and Greymalk use to get about.
  • Friendly Enemy: The players start out cordial and sometimes willing to cooperate on mutually beneficial projects, but mostly because at that point nobody knows yet who's an ally and who's an enemy; once everybody knows for sure who's on their side they start getting properly adversarial. The only friendship durable enough to fit the trope is Snuff and Gray (and their respective masters) who continue to be on friendly terms, even after the battle lines have been drawn and they've established that neither is willing to join the other's side.
  • Geometric Magic: How the Thing In The Circle is confined.
  • Glowing Eyes of Doom: When Jack is under his curse, "that funny light came into his eyes".
  • Gory Discretion Shot: There's not much of narration about Jack actually working with his knife, though the end result is made very clear.
  • Graverobbing: With morbid relish. Not only do all the Players, good guys or bad, engage in the practice, but one night they all raid the same cemetery at the same time, and commence trading the excavated body parts needed for their various rituals and schemes. By throwing them to one another, no less. "Oi, here's that liver yer wantin'. Catch!"
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: The Openers are not necessarily Evil, and the Closers are not necessarily Good. They each have their own reasons for why they think opening or keeping The Doorway closed would be the better outcome, whether for the world or just for themselves.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Jill the witch, at the end of the book.
    Snuff: Jack and Jill went down the hill. Gray and I ran after.
  • Hero Antagonist: The Great Detective is just trying to solve a series of unusual crimes being committed in and around London, though late in the book he comes to realize there are supernatural forces at play, and is sympathetic to Snuff and Larry Talbot.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Larry Talbot wrestles Roberts into the Gateway, but is pulled through himself. Though it's worth noting that, due to his unique condition, Larry is the only one of the players besides possibly the Count who could really survive on the other side, and for that matter might even be able to do some damage. And he's most likely be relieved to end up someplace where it won't be people his moon-mad form is killing.
  • Hide the Evidence: An unknown enemy leaves a murdered man in a field near Jack's house, forcing Snuff to spend a few days laboriously dragging the corpse to the river to deflect the police from poking around their place.
  • Horror Doesn't Settle for Simple Tuesday: Halloween night plays a very important role in the story.
  • Howl of Sorrow: Snuff the watchdog overhears a mournful canine howl in the distance, which translates as "Lost!" in the language of dogs and wolves. Later events suggest that the howler is Larry Talbot the werewolf, wracked with remorse over having lost control of his lunar bloodlust and killed someone.
  • Human Sacrifice: Vicar Roberts sacrifices a policeman to his dark god when he enters the Game, and plans to sacrifice his stepdaughter Lynette on the final night.
  • Ignore The Fan Service: Canine version; the Thing In the Circle keeps trying to lure Snuff into setting it free by assuming the shapes of various breeds of lady dog. All of its attempts fall flat, partly because it never thinks to mimic the smell of a real female in heat.
  • The Igor: The Good Doctor has a small, hunched assistant who robs graves for him.
  • In Vino Veritas: Quicklime gets Needle drunk to extract information from him.
  • Language Fluency Denial: Questioned by the police, Rastov suddenly (and conveniently) understands a lot less English than he used to.
  • Literary Allusion Title: From "Ulalume" by Edgar Allan Poe:
    The skies they were ashen and sober
    The leaves they were crispéd and sere...
    It was night in the lonesome October
    Of my most immemorial year
  • Lovecraft Lite: What's interesting here is that looked at carefully, the actual setting isn't really much brighter or more idealistic than straight Lovecraft. All the coziness comes from the "insider's perspective" on the happenings, as well as the main characters' resistance to the more debilitating forms of insanity. Curses, insanity, and fates worse than death are less of a worry if you're already dealing with one or more of the above.
  • Lunacy:
    • The Game takes place in a year when the moon is full on Halloween night. The preceding new moon is also a significant marker; certain things may only be done before the new moon, and others only after.
    • The full moon is also the only time Larry hasn't been able to retain control over himself as a werewolf.
  • Magic Wand:
    • The artifacts dedicated to the Game include a matched and opposing pair of crystal wands.
    • Jack also has another wand for everyday purposes.
  • Massive Multiplayer Crossover/Monster Mash/Reference Overdosed: The Public Domain Character/Historical Domain Character version. Jack (with knife) and Jill, Great Detective, Rastov the Russian Mad Monk, Good Doctor, Larry Talbot, Count, Cthulhu and Co, and more.
  • Master of Disguise: The Great Detective. He uses about half a dozen disguises in the course of the novel, each good enough to fool all the human characters (but only one of which is good enough to fool Snuff's nose).
  • Master of Your Domain: Snuff finds Larry deep in a meditative trance in a zen garden on the day before the full moon, which is implied to be part of the man's efforts to retain self-control during his upcoming moon-change.
  • Misplaced Wildlife:
    • Bubo describes himself as a "pack rat"; if that's his species and not just a figure of speech, he ought to be in North America rather than London.
    • Cheeter is described as gray, suggesting he's a North American gray squirrel rather than a native British red squirrel. Not impossible, as gray squirrels were introduced to England in the 1870s, but it's odd that a druid and a Player would select a non-native animal and a conspicuous "exotic" species as a companion.
  • Mistaken for Badass: One of the characters everyone else assumes is a Player turns out to be, if not exactly an innocent bystander, in town on unrelated business and unaware of the Game.
  • Mugging the Monster: At one point a team of vivisectionists try to intimidate a gentleman they suppose has "never met a man as really knows how to cut." As it turns out, the gentleman in question is Jack the Ripper. Cue Ludicrous Gibs.
  • Mundane Utility: As the players build the bonfire that will be the centerpiece of the climactic ritual, Snuff spends a paragraph describing its esoteric significance and the ways it can become involved in the night's magical events. Then he adds that it's also useful for disposing of inconvenient evidence and keeping off the autumn chill.
  • Must Be Invited: Discussed when Needle the bat is being hunted and asks Snuff for sanctuary. Needle says that it applies to the Count, but not to himself because he's not a vampire, just a bat.
  • Neck Snap: How the Count kills Morris and MacCab during the final ceremony; he snaps both their necks simultaneously.
  • Never Found the Body: Near the end of the story, the Good Doctor's house burns down; no bodies are found in the ruins, and nobody is sure whether the Good Doctor and his hunchbacked assistant died or got away. All of which is par for the course for the Good Doctor.
  • Noodle Incident: A previous Game apparently got Snuff into a scuffle with voodoo zombies. Mention is also made of a Game where the Closers won by default because everyone gave up and went home before the month was over, and another where the Closers won by default because nobody was able to find the correct ritual site (Everyone met for dinner the next night, had a good laugh, and went their separate ways).
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Jill's crazy routine, used to dodge questions during the police inquiry.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Snuff's "idiot slobbering hound" impression, used to disarm people who might be getting suspicious that there's more to him than meets the eye.
  • Ominous Owl: Nightwind, one of the familiars.
  • Orifice Evacuation/Orifice Invasion: Quicklime the snake lives part-time in Rastov's stomach, entering and exiting via his master's mouth. Subverted in that they're both apparently okay with this (!).
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Played With. Every costume The Great Detective dons seems to be convincing to the humans he interacts with, but Snuff immediately sees through all of them because he still smells like himself.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Vicar Roberts, an opener, murders Rastov the Monk, a closer, to try and stack the Game in his side's favour. The Count responds by murdering Owen, another opener, to balance things out, and as a warning to the vicar.
  • Perpetual Storm: There's a non-stop thunderstorm that lingers perpetually over the farmhouse where the Good Doctor lives. It finally breaks on the morning after his place burns down, leaving the immediate vicinity awash in mud for days to follow.
  • Pink Elephants: Discussed. Quicklime remarks at one point that he keeps out of the way of people with hangovers because he's been told it's bad for people in that condition to be seeing snakes, though he's never understood why.
  • Prophecy Twist: In the Dreamlands, Snuff and Greymalk meet the High Purring One, a cat god, who makes a remark to Snuff that seems at the time to be just a bit of cat-vs-dog banter. At the climax of the story, Snuff realizes that it was a bit of prophetic advice designed not to make sense until the moment comes to act on it.
  • Red Herring: Early on, the possibility is raised of a secret Player the others don't know about, which is why Snuff's calculations about the location of the rital site seem to be continually off. There is no secret Player; Bubo the Rat has been faking his and the Good Doctor's involvement in the Game, which is the actual reason Snuff's calculations aren't working.
  • Sealed Evil in a Duel: The final fate of Larry and the vicar.
  • Secret Circle of Secrets: There is a secret cult of Nyarlathotep worshipers in the village. Their leader is in the Game as an opener.
  • Self-Defeating Prophecy: Defied. Larry realizes that telling others about things he's anticipating may cause them to change their own actions, so he only reveals what his intuition tells him when he intends to do that, keeping silent if he'd rather rely upon his intuitive foresight.
  • Shadow Pin: Owen binds Cheeter to be his familiar by nailing his shadow to the wall with silver pins.
  • Shapeshifting Seducer: The Thing in the Circle, one of various eldritch Things that Jack and Snuff are set to guard over, tries this on Snuff without success. Apparently it never quite gets the smell right.
  • Silver Bullet: For werewolves. Roberts casts some out of the church silverware to prevent Larry Talbot interfering with his human sacrifice.
  • Sinister Minister: Vicar Roberts appears at first to be a fairly normal priest with perhaps a slightly overzealous reaction to the strange new people in the neighborhood. He turns out to be secretly a cult leader, a practicioner of human sacrifice, and all round the nastiest of the book's villains.
  • Slasher Smile: As Jack, with his curse fully upon him, is rescuing Snuff from some people about to kill him.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Crazy Jill is the only biological female among the Players. Played with in that Morris is implied to be trans or otherwise genderqueer, although still referred to as "master", not "mistress", by Nightwind.
  • Sole Survivor: At the end of the book, Crazy Jill and Graymalk are the only openers to still be alive and then only because they ended up on the closing side. Nightwind's and Tekela's fates are not explicitly stated, but it's established earlier that an unsuccessful opening attempt typically results in the deaths of the openers, from the magical backlash if nothing else. Cheeter did survive, but only by dropping out after Owen's murder.
  • Somewhere, a Mammalogist Is Crying:
    • An ordinary bat like Needle would be hard put to finish three grapes, let alone a plum, without his stomach exploding.
    • If Bubo's self-description as a "pack rat" is to be taken literally, he's on the wrong continent (pack rats are a North American mammal) and his claim that he hangs around the Good Doctor's place to scavenge the man's gory research waste makes no sense (pack rats are herbivores).
  • Spanner in the Works: Rather, a whole series of non-Player Spanners, operating independently, suffice to derail the Openers' scheme: Larry, the Great Detective, the experiment man, the Lord of Cats' advice, and Bubo.
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: When shifted into wolf form, Larry the werewolf can communicate with Snuff canine-to-canine. (His voice, or whatever mode of communication it is, is different from his human voice; Snuff doesn't know it's him until he introduces himself.) Snuff subsequently establishes that Larry can also understand him when not in wolf form. The same is true of the Great Detective when he becomes a wolf (including the bit about Snuff not recognising him).
  • Stolen MacGuffin Reveal: Played with. Bubo attempts one of these, switching the crystal wands so that when the Openers attempt to open the gate they'll actually be closing it. He didn't count on the Closers gaining the upper hand, and they nearly open the gate, attempting to close it, before he explains what he's done.
  • Summoning Artifact: The Opening Wand, a Magic Wand with the sole purpose of opening a gateway to let Eldritch Abominations into the world.
  • Title Drop: Occurs at the point where, after a lot of hinting about the purpose and rules of the game, it's finally laid out explicitly for the audience.
    And he proceeded to tell me the story of how a number of the proper people are attracted to the proper place in the proper year on a night in the lonesome October when the moon shines full on Halloween...
  • Unusual Chapter Numbers: October 1 through October 31.
  • Villain Protagonist: He doesn't act like one, but the reader is rooting for Jack the Ripper to save the world. In a different sense, much of the book is spent trying to figure out who is on which side, and there are some surprises before the end. Someone the reader thinks is a hero may turn out to be a villain or vice versa. In the final analysis, all named Closers are more or less traditional antagonists; some are better than their reputation would suggest, while others simply like the world the way it is and don't want beings from another dimension messing things up for them.
  • Villainy Discretion Shot: Jack, as a sympathetic protagonist, is never shown doing any of the things Jack the Ripper is infamous for. There are mentions of occasional trips in to London, and elsewhere mentions of a series of murders that has London police roused, but the two are never explicitly connected or shown in detail. There is one scene in which Jack stalks a woman through the dark streets of London, but it's a fake-out: he turns out to be after something she's carrying, and nobody is harmed.
  • Virgin Sacrifice: Lynette is intended as one, but is rescued by the Great Detective, with the assistance of Snuff and Larry.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting:
    • The Count can transform into a large bat.
    • Larry Talbot has gained a measure of control over his condition, and can transform into a wolf at will at any time of month (although he still has to endure an uncontrolled transformation at full moon).
  • Weather Dissonance: There are always storm clouds hanging over the Good Doctor's house, whatever the weather elsewhere.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: It's unclear what happens to Nightwind or Tekela during the final chapter, or whether Needle was present for the ceremony at all.
  • When the Clock Strikes Twelve:
    • At midnight each night, Snuff gains the power of human speech for an hour, and is thereby able to discuss the doings of the day with Jack. (It's later clarified that this is the case with all the Players and their familiars.)
    • The final showdown begins at midnight on Halloween.
    • Two of Jack's ingredients are stated to specifically require collection at midnight and the Vicar's satanic rite on October 18 happens at that hour.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Gender-flipped version. Lynette's stepfather is a priest of Nyarlathotep, and plans to sacrifice his stepdaughter to acquire supernatural power.
  • Wild Card: At the beginning of the book, the Good Doctor is this for Snuff; not only can he not figure out what side the Doctor is on, the divinations which other players try to perform on him are vague at best, and Snuff's attempts to calculate the location of the ceremony site don't work. Then it turns out the Good Doctor isn't a Wild Card at all, because he's not a Player and doesn't even appear to know about the Game; he just came to the village to work on his experiment in peace and quiet. Bubo, the pack rat that claimed to be his familiar, was lying about their involvement in the Game, hence the uncertain divinations and Snuff's calculations being thrown off when he tries to include the Doctor in them.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Crazy Jill and Graymalk. Gray hints that they're Openers only because they'd both had such horrible lives that they suspect anything else - even a world dominated by the Elder Gods - is bound to be an improvement.
  • Would Not Shoot a Civilian: Not only humans. Familiars tell normal critters to stay the hell away and some are outraged when mundane animals (whom they actually refer to as "civilians") catch fallout from the Game, such as crossbow bolts.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: Talbot's finally managed to concoct a remedy that lets him retain his mind when he transforms, even during a full moon. He uses it to intervene on the side of the Closers... just in time to get sucked into another dimension full of Lovecraftian horrors.
  • Younger Than They Look: Jack sees through Crazy Jill's guise as an older woman.