There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Players and Familiars: thoughts on A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny (1993).


In a London suburb straight out of Machenland, peculiar neighbors prepare. Some prepare to open the way for a reign of Lovecraftian beastliness upon earth. Others prepare to keep the way closed by any means necessary.

Perhaps humanity's savior is Jack [the Ripper]: a haunted man, cursed to outlive the eons. Some say he is Cain. His blade is inscribed with words of power.

Jack's opposite number among the closers is Jill. An old crone of a witch; or is she one of the newer, subtler variety?

Dracula and Rasputin are also on hand. As is a dodgy vicar (is there another kind?)

Investigating this mileu is a Great Detective and his limping chum. The detective disguises himself as a lady, but a Sherlock by any other name smells as sweet.

Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein are there: but as what? Openers, closers, or red herrings?

Sound like we're in Anno Dracula (1992) territory? Zelazny is not the pulp Victoriana epicure Kim Newman is. But A Night in the Lonesome October has something Anno Dracula does not: a contagious atmosphere of ghoulish drollery and delight.

A Night in the Lonesome October is narrated not in third person, and not by a human protagonist. Each opener and closer has an animal familiar. Jack has Snuff, a big and brilliant dog skilled in tracking and higher Witch-House maths.
Jill has Graymalk, a cat of wit and cunning. Others have bats, rats, owls, birds of prey.

The chapters count down to a rare October 31 full moon. But on the way openers and closers and their familiars work together as much as against one-another. This graveyard scene, for instance, is practically a hymn to solidarity:

....Jack wanted to visit a cemetery for a few final ingredients. He decided upon a distant, isolated one we had been to once before. He went on horseback, bearing a spade and bull's-eye lantern, and I trotted along beside.

He tethered his horse amid some trees outside the graveyard, and we went in on foot. It was, of course, a very dark night. But with the aid of the lantern we quickly located an appropriately secluded plot of recent turning. Jack set to work immediately, and I went about my watching.

It was a pleasantly mild evening for October, with a few bats flitting by, bright stars overhead. I heard footsteps in the distance, but they were not headed in our direction and I saw no cause for alarm. I patrolled our small area in an almost leisurely fashion. After a time, something very large passed overhead, descending. It did not land nearby, however, nor make any movement to approach us. A bit later, something equally large passed—again, descending, though in a different area than the first, and, again, making no overtures toward us—and I remained alert but voiced no warning. I heard horses on the trail a little after that, sounds of dismounting, more footsteps. Later, a wagon creaked to a halt, and I heard its brake being set. The sounds of a few whispered voices reached me then, from various distant areas. I began to feel uncomfortable at all this activity. I patrolled farther afield; and, listening closely, I began hearing the sounds of spades from many directions.

"I remember you," came a faintly familiar voice. "You're a watchdog, like me, with big teeth."

It was the graveyard dog, making his rounds.

"'Evening," I said. "Yes, I recall. Seems to be a lot of activity all of a sudden."

"Too much," he replied. "I'm not sure I care to give the alarm. Might get mobbed. After all, everybody here is dead, so who cares? They won't complain. The older I get the more conservative I feel. I'm just not much into heavy action these days. I do wish everybody'd fill up their holes neatly, though, afterwards. Maybe you could pass the word along?"

"I don't know," I said. "I don't know who all's out there. It's not like a trade union, you know, with operating rules and policies. We usually just get the work done as efficiently as possible and get the hell out."

"Well, it would be nice if you cleaned up after yourselves. Less trouble for me."

"I'm afraid I can only speak for the master, but he's usually quite neat in these matters. Maybe you'd better approach a few of the others yourself."

"I'm inclined to let it go by," he said. "Too bad."

We strolled around a bit together then. Later, a voice very like MacCab's called out from down the hill, "Damn! I need a left femur and this one ain't got one!"

"Left femur, you say?" came an ancient croaking voice from nearby, which could have been Owen's. "I've one right here I ain't usin'. Have you a liver, though? That's my need."

"Easily done!" came the reply. "Bide a moment. There! Trade?"

"You have it! Catch!"

Something flashed through the air to rattle farther down the hill, followed by scurrying sounds.

"Fair enough! Here's yer liver!"

There came a splap from higher up and a muttered "Got it!"

"Hey!" came a lady's voice then, from off to the left. "While you're about it, have you a skull?"

"Indeed I do!" said the second man. "What'll you give?"

"What do you need?"


"Done! I'll tie 'em together with a piece of twine!"

"Here's your skull!"

"Got it! Yours'll be along shortly!"

"Has anyone the broken vertebrae of a hanged man?" came a deep masculine voice with a Hungarian accent, from somewhere far to the right.

There followed a minute's silence. Then, "I've some mashed ones here! Dunno how they got that way, though!"

"Perhaps they'll do. Send them along, please!"

Something white and rattling flashed through the starlit air.

"Yes. I can work with these. What'll you have for them?"

"They're on the house! I'm done! 'Night!"

There followed the sounds of rapidly retreating footfalls.

"See?" the old dog said. "He didn't fill it in."

"I'm sorry."

"I'll be up kicking dirt all night."

"Afraid I can't help you. I've got my own job to see to."

"Eyeballs, anyone?" came a call.

"Over here," said someone with a Russian accent. "One of them, please."

"I'll have the other," came an aristocratic voice from the opposite direction.

"Either of you got a couple of floating ribs, or a pair of kidneys?"

"Down here, on the kidneys!" came a new voice. "And I'm in need of a patella!"

"What's that?"

"Knee bone!"

"Oh? No problem. . . ."

On the way out, we passed a white-bearded, frail-looking man, half-adoze, leaning on a spade near the gate. Casual inspection would have had one believe him a sexton, out for a bit of night air, but his scent was that of the Great Detective, hardly drowsing. Someone had obviously spoken too publicly.

Jack muffled himself and we slunk by, shadows amid shadows.

Thus was all our work quickly concluded to everyone's satisfaction, save for the tired hound. Such times are rare, such times are fleeting, but always bright when caught, measured, hung, and later regarded in times of adversity, there in the kinder halls of memory, against the flapping of the flames.

* * *

A Night in the Lonesome October is a lovely paeon to Universal Monsters and the thought-world of Stoker and Conan Doyle, braided drollery courtesy of a Wodehouse.

9 October 2018

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