Fallen Books and Other Subtle Clues in Zelazny’s “A Night in the Lonesome October”, by Dr. Christopher S. Kovacs

An essay by Dr. Christopher S. Kovacs.  About the essay, in his own words:

Part of the enjoyment of A Night in the Lonesome October comes from recognizing obvious characters and puzzling over the identities of the elusive ones. When I wrote about the origins of this novel in Zelazny’s biography, I took the opportunity to identify the characters I was certain about. Then upon re-reading the novel last year, I became determined to identify everyone. When I stumbled upon the connection to Virginia Woolf (a writer whose works Zelazny admired), I knew that I had a new essay to write. I also wanted it to be accessible to readers who’d enjoy this kind of thing, and so it appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction. But the identity game may never end. Only Zelazny knew for certain who was who (or did he?), and a NYRSF reader quickly pointed out a better inspiration for the raven Tekela than what I’d proposed. Some readers may dispute my conclusions and others may not want help unmasking the characters. But for those who do want a Who’s Who in A Night in the Lonesome October, here’s a newly revised and accessible version. And what better place for it than an issue of Lovecraft eZine that is offered in tribute to the novel and the author?

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 and the way may be opened for the return of the Elder Gods to Earth, and of how some of these people would assist in the opening of the way for them while others would strive to keep the way closed. For ages, the closers have won, often just barely, and there were stories of a shadowy man, half-mad, a killer, a wanderer, and his dog, who always showed up to attempt the closing.

A Night in the Lonesome October (1993) was Roger Zelazny’s last solo novel. He conceived it in 1979 as a story to be illustrated by Gahan Wilson but abandoned it when Wilson declared that he was too busy to participate. It wasn’t until December 1991 that Zelazny rediscovered his notes and wrote what many readers and critics consider to be a return to the experimental form that characterized his early career. Wilson did the illustrations, including a portrayal of Zelazny as Holmes and Wilson as Watson on the back of the dustjacket. The book was a finalist for the Nebula Award in 1995, the first of Zelazny’s since Doorways in the Sand to be so honored.

This is a difficult novel to summarize without giving too much away: a full moon falls on Halloween several times each century, and that rare event is the cue for a ritualized power struggle that may enable the Elder Gods of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos to return to Earth. On the surface it seems light-hearted and whimsical—it’s narrated by a dog, no less!—even as it explicitly deals with gruesome topics such as vivisection, murder, grave-robbing, and dismembering of corpses. Gahan Wilson’s typically wacky cartoons, one per chapter, aid in giving the text whimsy and a sense of pastiche. And yet it has a subtlety that may be overlooked by the casual reader as Zelazny drops literary references which provide additional insights into what is really going on.

The novel consists of a prologue followed by diary entries for each of the 31 days of October. A cult tradition has evolved to re-read the book each October, a chapter a day, and to attempt to deduce the identities of the tantalizingly familiar characters. For the book is rich with borrowed characters from real life and classics of literature and screen. Some are obvious, but others are not. The subtlest clue is a casual reference to a fallen book which acknowledges a key inspiration for Zelazny’s unusual choice of narrator. In an article entitled “When It Comes It’s Wonderful,” Zelazny avowed that his muse told him to “‘—take a chance, write the story from a dog’s viewpoint and make Jack the Ripper a somewhat sympathetic guy.’ Things like that I had thought of in the past but lacked the nerve to show it.” It is that choice of narrator which creates much of the book’s charm.

The novel’s title refers to the poem “Ulalume” by Edgar Allan Poe, a somber poem in which a narrator unconsciously returns to the grave of his lover:

The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crisped and sere–
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year…

The poem lends appropriate atmosphere to what follows. The dedica­tion provides additional clues for the identities of some characters: “To—Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Albert Payson Terhune, and the makers of a lot of old movies—Thanks.” The reference to Bradbury may be a general acknowledgment of his many contributions to spooky and unsettling stories that take place in autumn (collections The October Country, Dark Carnival, novels Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Halloween Tree, etc.). The “old movies” likely include Bela Lugosi’s many portrayals of Dracula, all the Frankenstein movies, the werewolf movies, Basil Rathbone’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, etc. Zelazny loved B movies, and so there are probably many unnameable and forgettable films receiving a nod. Zelazny specifies one movie by mentioning Larry Talbot (c.f. below), but the novel likely owes inspiration to a lifetime of watching that genre of motion pictures.

A Night in the Lonesome October and his unrelated shorter works “The Insider” and “24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai” represent Zelazny’s contributions to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. It is the Elder Gods who may return if the Gateway is opened at midnight on October 31st, and we see references to Nyarlathotep (the Crawling Chaos) and Shub-Niggurath (the Black Goat with a Thousand Young). At the novel’s end it is Cthulhu himself who tries to emerge from the Gateway, represented as a multi-tentacled being. An icon created by Alhazred is a key power rune; Abdul Alhazred is Lovecraft’s Mad Arab and the fictional author of the Necronomicon central to the Cthulhu Mythos. The October 22nd entry contains a lengthy sequence which alludes extensively to Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”

Zelazny also acknowledges not only Lovecraft but Ambrose Bierce and Robert W. Chambers. When the character Rastov feels depressed, it cheers him up to “go to the shores of Hali and consider the enactments of ruin.” In Bierce’s tale “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” a man who thinks he has recently recovered from an illness wanders about, not realizing that he is a disembodied spirit until he reads the inscription upon his tomb which overlooks the ruins of Carcosa by the shores of Hali. Robert W. Chambers incorporated the ruins of Carcosa into his 1895 book of stories The King in Yellow, and in turn Lovecraft later added it to his Cthulhu mythos. Zelazny also refers to “the Yellow Emperor” which acknowledges The King in Yellow as well as Chinese legend.

The novel takes place during the Victorian era at the time of a full moon over London on Halloween, which places it in 1887 (per David Harper’s guide to full moons). Halloween 1887 fits the timeline of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, although 1888 is when the notorious murders attributed to Jack occurred in the Whitechapel district of London. A portrait of Queen Victoria’s son Prince Albert hangs on a wall; he succeeded her as Edward VII in 1901.

The main characters of the novel consist of human-seeming Players as well as their familiars, animals which can talk to each other (and to their masters for one hour after every midnight).

So who are they?

Jack and his dog Snuff

The book is narrated in first person by Snuff, a dog who asserts that “I like being a watchdog better than what I was before he summoned me and gave me this job.” Like the horse Black in his Dilvish stories (Dilvish, the Damned and The Changing Land), Zelazny alludes to a captured demon who is spending his time doing good. More on Snuff’s origins later.

His owner Jack possesses (and is sometimes possessed by) a cursed knife blade. He also bears the Closing Wand which may keep shut the Gateway to the Elder Gods. Jack is, of course, Jack the Ripper, who terrorized London in the autumn of 1888 by slaying women with a knife and mutilating their bodies afterward. In this novel, Jack needs certain body parts—ingredients—for potions and tools that will help him keep the Gateway shut. By way of the dedication, Zelazny specifically acknowledges Bloch’s The Night of the Ripper and also “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” (which Zelazny narrated for an audiobook).

In true Zelazny fashion, Jack may be more than he seems, a long-lived or immortal being. “Some said that he was Cain himself, doomed to walk the Earth, marked; others said he’d a pact with one of the Elders who secretly wished to thwart the others; none really knew.” But Jack is on the side of Good in this novel, committing gruesome acts in order to prevent a greater evil from transforming the Earth. Snuff and Jack twice refer to troubles at an earlier ritual enacted in Dijon, France. It’s unclear whether any Jack the Ripper–like occurrences happened in Dijon prior to 1887 when this novel takes place; the notorious French Ripper murders happened in Dijon during 1895, well after the events that Snuff recounts here.

Jill and her cat Graymalk (Gray)

Graymalk is likely Graymalkin, familiar of the third witch in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This means that her mistress, Jill, who rides a broom, must be Shakespeare’s third witch. She opposes Jack and pos­sesses the Opening Wand which will facilitate the return of the Elder Gods. Together with Jack, her name enables a pun that is not voiced until the end when she accompanies Jack up the sloping terrain.

Morris, MacCab, and the owl Nightwind

Morris and MacCab are a pair of grave robbers who steal body parts as tools to use in the final ritual. They are based on real-life William Burke and William Hare who, during the 1800s in Edinburgh, operated as serial killers and grave robbers (body snatchers), and sold the corpses to the medical school. In Zelazny’s book one of them is a cross-dresser, but it doesn’t appear that Burke and Hare were in real life. However, Burke’s mistress and Hare’s wife were accomplices who lured the women, and that may be what Zelazny was alluding to. Also, given his penchant for old movies, Zelazny may have based the characters not on Burke and Hare directly but instead on the film The Body Snatcher which starred Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. In turn, that movie was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel of the same name, which he’d written based on the true life story of Burke and Hare.

Larry Talbot and his exotic plants

Larry Talbot is a werewolf who cultivates and talks to exotic plants; until the end of the novel it is not clear whether he is a Player or not. Larry Talbot was the lycanthrope in the 1941 film The Wolf Man. Moreover the 1935 film Werewolf in London mentioned a mariphasa plant which is an antidote to lycanthropy, and this is likely the plant that Zelazny has Talbot use.

Rastov and the snake Quicklime

Rastov is based on the crazy Russian monk Rasputin, who exerted undue influence over Tsar Nicholas II before and during World War I. Zelazny portrays Rastov as an alcoholic with the snake Quicklime sometimes living in his belly. This is a reference to unproven assertions that Rasputin practiced mithridatism, which involved consuming low doses of snake poison in order to become resistant to assassination attempts. It is Rastov who bears “an amazing icon drawn by a mad Arab who’d given up on Islam” and who in his depression longs for the shores of Hali, both references to Lovecraft.

The name Quicklime is appropriate for a novel that is frequently beset with rotting corpses, body parts, and blood. Calcium oxide (quicklime) has been frequently portrayed in B films as a substance that will hasten decomposition of corpses when in fact it helps preserve them. Its main use is to obscure the smell of decay.

Owen and the squirrel Cheeter

Owen is described as a druid who harvests mistletoe and bears a sickle as his power rune. He likely represents Owen Glendower of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, who can call spirits from the vasty deep. That his familiar is a squirrel may allude to the Norse legend of Ratatoskr, a messenger squirrel who runs up and down the world tree Yggdrasil.

Vicar Roberts and the white raven Tekela

The Vicar Roberts tries to kill other Players with his crossbow and bears an old pentacle bowl, a powerful tool to be used in the final ritual. He plans to murder his stepdaughter Lynette in a ritual sacrifice that will increase his power to open the Gateway. Some readers have suggested that he is based on Lovecraft’s Vicar (from the poem “The Peace Advocate”) who goes mad when his wife and daughter are killed during a war, burns his Bible, and declares that he is the fool of peace no more. However, Lovecraft’s vicar appears to be acting for good rather than evil at the end of the poem. A real-life alternative is Barthélemy Lemeignan, vicar of Saint-Eustache, who was convicted of sacrificing children in black masses.

The vicar’s white raven Tekela likely acknowledges Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem, even though it is not black. In folklore and mythology, white ravens have been repeatedly punished by being turned black, whether it’s Noah’s raven who fails to return promptly with news that the floodwaters have receded, Apollo’s raven which brings him a message of a lover’s unfaithfulness, or the white raven of Native American mythology who steals the sun. The name Tekela evokes Tekeli-li, the sound that ravens made in Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Shoggoths endlessly repeated that same cry in Lovecraft’s 1936 novel At the Mountains of Madness.

The Count with his bat Needle

The Count is a vampire who acknowledges Bram Stoker’s Dracula as well as the numerous portrayals in B horror films. He speaks in slow, guttural tones which suggests Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula. He possesses a ring of power and that his familiar is a bat is not surprising.

The Good Doctor and the rat Bubo

The Good Doctor and his “experiment man” acknowledge Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, including Dr. Frankenstein and the monster that he assembles from body parts and shocks into life. In Zelazny’s book the Good Doctor also has a “small hunched companion” who fetches body parts from the graveyards. This is Zelazny’s acknowledgment of the stage and screen contributions to the Frankenstein mythos, since no hunchbacked assistant appears in Shelley’s novel.

The rat Bubo asserts that the Good Doctor is a Player and that Bubo is his familiar, but in fact the Good Doctor is not involved. He’d simply sought the quiet countryside for peace and quiet to conduct his life-enabling experiments. Bubo is a wannabe imposter whose name refers to the swollen groin glands that are caused by the Black Death, a disease transmitted by fleas that can be carried by rats.

Some readers have asserted that Good Doctor refers to Isaac Asimov. While it’s true that Asimov was affectionately referred to in this way by fans, it’s clearly the wrong deduction for this novel. The confusion probably arises among people who mistakenly believe that Frankenstein refers to the monster and not his creator. The Good Doctor is Dr. Frankenstein. As far as we know, Dr. Asimov stuck to his typewriter and never created any monsters from used body parts.

Great Detective and his Companion

The Great Detective and his Companion are clearly Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. They spend the novel trying to determine what is going on (with Watson suffering injuries such as being nipped on the leg by Snuff), and end up assisting Snuff and Jack at the climax. Zelazny portrays a Holmes who outdoes himself with exceptional disguises. He not only becomes the woman Linda Enderby but transforms himself into a werewolf in order to help save Lynette and the world at the end. He also deduces that Snuff is intelligent and capable of speech.

Three vivisectionists

Three unnamed vivisectionists begin to torture the narrator Snuff before he is rescued and Jack eliminates them. Their conversa­tion evokes the black humor of Creatures of Light and Darkness in which one scrier rips out the other’s innards, prompting the victim to shout, “They are my innards! I will not have them misread by a poseur!” Also in Creatures we meet three self-blinded Smiths of Norn (Brotz, Purtz and Dulp) who speak in similar fashion while repairing Set’s weapon. The descriptions of the three vivisectionists are somewhat reminiscent of the Three Stooges: a thin blond man, a large beefy man with very blue eyes, and a short man with wide shoulders, large hands, and a tic at the corner of his mouth. One of the characters grabs Snuff by the ear and twists it painfully. However, these three characters speak in broad, low-class British accents whereas the Three Stooges were American. Zelazny may have been referring to general tropes of horror films, but it’s not impossible that some old horror movie had three characters fitting this description.

Snuff himself

The dedication implies that Snuff owes inspiration to Chum, Buff, and other dogs in the stories of Albert Payson Terhune. But in a late chapter several literally dropped clues reveal a more important inspiration for him. Snuff is saved from the vivisectionists, and shortly thereafter he and Jack are attacked at home. Sets of books by Dickens and Surtees and issues of Strand Magazine (wherein Sherlock Holmes first appeared) fall off the shelves, and “Martin Farquhar Tupper lay atop Elizabeth Barrett Browning, their covers torn.” Tupper and Barrett Browning (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. . . .”) were Victorian era poets and quite appropriate selections for Jack’s bookshelves given the setting of this novel. Both were involved in protests against vivisection during that era. Tupper wrote four anti-vivisection sonnets, Browning was an animal supporter who wrote two influential poems about her dog Flush, and Robert Browning (Barrett Browning’s husband) wrote two anti-vivisection poems. Zelazny’s timing is deliberate since the events follow the episode with the vivisectionists.

But there’s something more.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems about her dog Flush inspired distinguished author Virginia Woolf to write the novel Flush: A Biography (1933). Based on what she learned of Barrett Browning’s dog through the two poems and published correspondence between the Brownings, Woolf’s novel is told through the eyes of the dog, Flush. The biography is said to work on three levels: as biography of a dog’s life, as biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning seen through her dog’s eyes, and as a representation of life and class struggles in London during Victorian times. So too Zelazny’s novel works as a diary of a dog’s life, as an exposé that makes Jack the Ripper a sympathetic and moral character, and as a novel that captures the feel of life in Victorian England as portrayed in B horror movies. Snuff and Flush share similar short names which are also action verbs. It seems certain now that Zelazny’s choice to have Snuff narrate A Night in the Lonesome October was inspired by Woolf having Flush narrate Flush: A Biography.

And so in typical Zelazny fashion, it’s a subtle passing remark which is key: mention of a book falling off a shelf gives acknowledgment to one of the key inspirations for Snuff and the unusual choice of dog as narrator for this novel. A Night in the Lonesome October is Zelazny’s response to Virginia Woolf’s Flush: A Biography. *

Acknowledgment:

Revised from its original appearance in The New York Review of Science Fiction #280, December 2011. My thanks to reader Dennis Lien who noted that the ravens’ cry tekeli-li is likely the source for Tekela’s name.

Works Cited

Harper, David, and Lynn Marie Stockman. Halloween Blue Moons, 2007. <www.obliquity.com/astro/halloween.html>, accessed October 7, 2008.

Zelazny, Roger. A Night in the Lonesome October. New York: William Morrow, 1993.

——. “‘When It Comes It’s Wonderful’: Art Versus Craft in Writing.” In Deep Thoughts: Proceedings of Life, the Universe and Everything XII, February 16-19, 1994, edited by Steve Setzer and Marny K Parkin. Provo, Utah: LTU&E, 1995.

Christopher Kovacs first read Nine Princes in Amber in 1979 and he’s been a fan and collector of Roger Zelazny’s works ever since. For the six-volume The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny from NESFA Press that he co-edited with Dave Grubbs and Ann Crimmins, Kovacs assembled all of Zelazny’s known published and unpublished stories, annotated the works to explain allusions and cryptic references, and gathered Zelazny’s own comments about individual stories from correspondence and interviews. He also wrote a biography titled “…And Call Me Roger”: The Literary Life of Roger Zelazny that was published in six parts, one per volume of The Collected Stories.

In the daytime Kovacs is an Endocrinologist (specialist in diseases involving glands and hormones) and an academic clinician scientist who studies bone metabolism. When he has time during evenings and weekends, he’s also a professional artist; one of his works has appeared on millions of stamps for Canada Post and Japan Post. He lives in Paradise, Newfoundland, Canada.

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8 responses to “Fallen Books and Other Subtle Clues in Zelazny’s “A Night in the Lonesome October”, by Dr. Christopher S. Kovacs

    • Thanks for the kind words. It’s gratifying to know that readers have enjoyed this essay and also what I did for the COLLECTED STORIES.

  1. Isn’t it more llikely that the portrait of Prince Albert refers to Victoria’s Consort, Prince Albert, who was so mourned by Victoria? I recently saw a theory that Albert’s death may have averted a constitutional crisis in England over how much influence Prince Albert was gaining.

    • Thanks for the comment. However, I don’t think that portrait is meant to be Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. He died in 1861. This story is taking place 26 years later, in 1887, when Victoria’s son Prince Albert is the heir apparent, and Victoria had already been in power for 50 years. Albert succeeded Victoria upon her death in 1901. The portrait hangs in a commoner’s house that Jack is using, not in the residence of the Queen. Is that commoner’s house likely to have a portrait of Victoria’s long-dead spouse Albert, or is it more likely to have a portrait of the heir apparent Albert? I think it’s more likely the latter, just as even now Prince Charles’s portrait hangs in certain homes and public places in the Commonwealth, in anticipation of the time when he inherits the crown. But no doubt I could be mistaken.

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