Carpe Baculum: A Night in the Lonesome October
A Night in the Lonesome October (1993) by Roger Zelazny, illustrated by Gahan Wilson
by Fletcher Vredenburgh
I did not buy this book based on the cover. I did, however, buy it based on the illustration for the first chapter. I like Roger Zelazny well enough, but Gahan Wilson illustrations can get me to buy almost anything.
Still, when I first bought A Night in the Lonesome October (taken from a line in “Ulalume” by Poe), a comic horror novel that brings together more classic monsters and villains than all the Universal monsters movies put together, I did not expect it to become one of my favorite books. Written by Roger Zelazny and illustrated by Gahan Wilson, if you’ve missed it, just go buy it. Nothing I could write is sufficient to convey the utter dark delight that is the book.
The book is told in 32 chapters, each accompanied by a Gahan Wilson drawing. All save the first cover a single day in October sometime in the late Victorian era in and around London. Some people, apparently, reread it each October, a chapter a day. I myself am unable to not try to read it all at once each time I pick it up.
Every year when a full moon rises on Halloween and the barrier between Earth and other dimensions becomes more permeable, two parties come together in an event they call the Great Game. The Openers attempt to open a portal for the Great Old Ones (aka Cthulhu and company) and the Closers work to keep the portal shut. Each party is a duo made up of some archetypal character and an animal familiar. The Mad Monk has a snake who lives in his gut, the Druid has a squirrel, and Closer named Jack, a tall, black-garbed man with a big, sharp knife has a big hound called Snuff.
“I am a watchdog. My name is Snuff. I live with my master Jack outside of London now. I like Soho very much at night with its smelly fogs and dark streets. It is silent then and we go for long walks. Jack is under a curse from long ago and must do much of his work at night to keep worse things from happening. I keep watch while he is about it. If someone comes, I howl.
“We are keepers of several curses and our work is very important. I have to keep watch on the Thing in the Circle, the Thing in the Wardrobe, and the Thing in the Steamer Trunk — not to mention the Things in the Mirror. When they try to get out I raise particular hell with them. They are afraid of me. I do not know what I would do if they all tried to get out at the same time. It is good exercise, though, and I snarl a lot.”
When not watching the various Things (which are always trying to get Snuff to free them by taking on the shape of female dogs) or accompanying Jack, Snuff spends his time investigating the other players, their familiars and trying to find the site of the doorway. This leads him into an alliance of convenience with a witch’s cat named Graymalk, hiding a constable’s corpse, and even takes him to Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. Snuff’s a canny detective — even capable of spotting a certain Great Detective in disguise — and a riveting guide to the intricacies of the Game.
The Game has rules each player must abide by, particularly in the earliest stages during the opening weeks of October. For instance, you aren’t allowed to ask other players which sides they are on. You can’t kill your opponents. It’s not terribly complicated, and of course, the players being the sorts of people they are don’t always feel bound by the rules – which can lead to mayhem and violence. When Snuff is dognapped and delivered up to a gang of vivisectionists by a pair of Openers, Jack is forced to go to his rescue.
“Heavy footsteps crossed the outer room. Then the door immediately across from me was flung open. Jack stood upon the threshold, staring at the cages, the vivisectionist, myself upon the table. Graymalk peered in from behind him.
“Just who do you think you are, bursting into a private laboratory?” said the beefy man.
“…Interrupting a piece of scientific research?” said the tall man.
“…And damaging our door?” said the short man with wide shoulders and large hands.
“I could see it now, like a black tornado, surrounding Jack, settling inward. If it entered him completely he would no longer be in control of his actions.
“I’ve come for my dog,” he said. “That’s him on your table.”
He moved forward.
“No, you don’t laddie,” said the beefy man. “This is a special job for a special client.”
“I’ll be taking him and leaving now.”
The beefy man raised his scalpel and moved around the table.
“This can do amazing things to a man’s face, pretty boy,” he said.
The others picked up scalpels, also.
“I’d guess you’ve never met a man as really knows how to cut,” the beefy one said, advancing now.
“It was into him, and that funny light came into his eyes, and his hand came out of his pocket and captured starlight traced the runes on the side of his blade.
“Well-met,” Jack said then, through the teeth of his grin, and he continued to walk straight ahead.”
A Night in the Lonesome October is a full-throated paean to the classic monsters and pulp treasures of yore. Among the cast of characters, there’s a vampire simply called the Count, a witch named Jill, a pair of graverobbers named Morris and McCab, a strangely lupine man named Larry Talbot, and the lab coat-wearing Good Doctor and his Experiment Man. The latter two live with a hunchback in a building that exists under a seemingly perpetual lighting storm.
I won’t say anything else about the book’s plot. Each chapter is its own satisfying setpiece that together builds up to one of the very best Lovecraftian horror tales bar none. It’s also terrifically funny, and, did I mention already, every chapter has its own Gahan Wilson picture?
A Night in the Lonesome October was Roger Zelazny’s final book. It’s rumored he wrote it on a dare to make even someone as despicable as Jack the Ripper a hero (he also included it among his five favorite novels he’d written). True or not, and I hope it is, he succeeded most brilliantly.