Tales From the Backlist: Roger Zelazny Wrote the Best Halloween Novel You’ve Never Read

I think rituals are important. Little things that break up the monotony of the increasingly indistinguible tie-dye smear of days that slam together like a car accident on a highway. It’s been even worse lately. None of us know what day it is and it’s pure hubris to even guess the month. Everything feels like an unending Tuesday in April. Rituals can ground us, though. They remind us of where we are, they acknowledge the slow creep of changing seasons, they bring something special and different into our lives. It could be as simple as the same meal on a certain day of the week or a film you watch when you notice the days getting shorter. For me, I mark the passing of the months in books. There are several I pull out when the time is right and my favorite of all of them is a forgotten little horror jewel called A Night In The Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny. 

October is usually my jam. I’ll be the first to tell you I’m a Halloween person. I’m the type of weirdo who leaves my decorations up year round. I barely acknowledge my birthday in the summer doldrums of July but everyone I know wishes me a Happy Halloween like it’s my Mad Hatter-approved unbirthday. This is the time of year when I shine. Lately, my usual joy for the season feels washed out and forced. It’s hard to rally any enthusiasm for much these days, even my believed Halloween, so I felt a strange sadness when I took my beloved copy of the once-out-of-print classic down from its shelf and dusted it off. My world has become so different since the last time I held it. 

A Night In The Lonesome October is an odd little book. It’s a stunningly well put-together piece of Victorian exquisite corpse. It’s Roger Zelazny, a Hugo Award winning author, clearly just having the absolute time of his life writing. Delight is evident on every page, bright as sunlight and just as warm. It’s scary, yes, but also wickedly funny. Describing it is always a challenge. In the most broad terms it’s a story that takes place over the month of October, told by our protagonist, a faithful watchdog named Snuff. His owner, Jack, is part of a strange cabal that meets when the time is right to either save or destroy the world. He is a closer, tasked with keeping everything safe, and he is also, astonishingly enough, Jack the Ripper. His little town outside London begins to fill with strange new neighbors: a witch named Jill, a mad Russian monk, a strange Doctor with constant lightning over his manse, and a sinister vampire, just to name a few. Together they must discover who are allies or who are foes just in time to stop horrific, world-devouring cosmic horrors from stepping from beyond the veil into our defenseless world. If that wasn’t enough, a famous detective is hot on their heels, trying to figure out what crimes they are committing as they prepare for this auspicious event.  

Yes, my friends, it’s a novel where Dracula and Raspustin somehow team up with Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to stop Cthulhu. I swear to you I am not making this up. It is absolutely bonkers in the best of ways. Even better, the entire story is told not by these towering figures of gothic literature but, instead, their fuzzy familiars. Snuff is joined by a cat, a squirrel, an owl, and a snake, and they gossip and bicker like people who have worked together in the same office for too long. Don’t get me wrong, as wonderful and silly as it is, it’s also what I would call a “gentle scare” of a novel. There are horrible murders, nail-biting torture, and several scenes that I end up skimming because they have given me nightmares before. So while it’s bucolic and fun, this novel also doesn’t pull any punches. 

A Night In The Lonesome October is told in 31 chapters, one for each day of the month. Naturally, my ritual became reading just one chapter a night before bedtime. I talk about my ritual every year and I have convinced many friends to join me. It’s easier now that the book is back in print. For over a decade it was only available if you took the time to dig through a used bookstore or white-knuckle it through an Ebay auction. It was Roger Zelazny’s last book before he passed away and his other works, elegant tomes of epic fantasy that give George R.R. Martin a run for his money, overshadowed this strange little story. I have no idea how he even got it published, to be honest. How did he pitch it to his agent? It’s like having a fever dream while TCM plays classic monster movies in the background. 

This yearly ritual usually brings me such great comfort. It’s like meeting an old friend for lunch and picking up right where you left off even though you haven’t seen each other in months. Every year I feel like I get something different out of the experience. I am always astonished by how much of the story I forget in a year, and there are murders that take me by surprise or a turn of phrase that just stops my heart with how beautiful or funny it is. The book has grown with me. I’ve been doing this October ritual for over a decade now and each stage of my life uncovers something new. It is a story of horror and the occult, of murder and subterfuge and double-crossing, but it’s also a novel about the power of unlikely friendships and alliances, of being sure of yourself and your abilities, of making sure you stay true to yourself even under great pressure to change because you are fighting a losing battle. 

These comfort reads are more important than ever right now. Even a few pages a night is time not spent doomscrolling. It’s a little break for my overheated, perpetually screaming brain that exists in a state of pure, unfiltered existential crisis. A little gift to myself at the end of another long day in a seemingly unending series of long days. I encourage you to give it a try. Pick up a copy of a well-worn favorite, a book you know like you know your own bones, and eat it in tiny bites every night. Revisit a classic from Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, or Stephen King (maybe not The Strand but, hey, you do you ) or pick up your own copy of A Night In The Lonesome October and join me in this little ritual of mine. After the year we’ve had, I truly don’t know who will win this year. Nyarlathotep might just be an improvement. 


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