November 17, 2014

The Best Book for Old Hallows

by Devany Tesch

Since October has come to a close and the holiday season is blasting at full volume from every drugstore and supermarket, I’m already beginning to miss the cobwebs, fake blood and horrors of Halloween.  Really, who can blame me?

As an antidote for the too early switch to day-light savings time, Christmas carols, and turkeys, I'm going to tell you about the best Halloween novel of all time.

Before I moved out to San Francisco, I grew up in North Carolina.  I would come out to the West Coast to visit my family during the summers and holidays.  On one night in particular, when I was trying to go to sleep before my flight back east, I was restless and completely unable to sleep.  I couldn’t seem to keep my eyes closed and my heart kept racing.  My dad heard me rolling around and came in to check on me.  When I told him that I was restless and sleep was being particularly troublesome, he asked me what he could to do to help.  I asked him to read me a story.

The book he chose was Roger Zelazny’s “A Night in the Lonesome October”, and while it did eventually manage to get me to sleep my Dad stayed up for more than two hours reading to me.  That night I fell in love with that novel.

The first year I lived in San Francisco, I started feeling pretty lonely around the beginning of October. To cheer myself up, I asked my Dad if I could borrow his old copy of Zelazny’s novel. Not only did reading it cheer me up, it also set into motion a tradition I’ve kept for the past four years; reading through “A Night in the Lonesome October”, day by day, starting October first.  Even disregarding my pleasant associations with that novel, it is the perfect Halloween story and one of Zelazny's most underrated works.

The book take place over the thirty one frightfully fun days of October, with each chapter dedicated to a single date.  This set-up makes it perfect to read throughout the entire month, getting the reader all set and ready for the final, terror-fueled night.  I think of it as the advent calendar for October.  Zelazny uses a wide cast of characters. pulling from all the great classics in fright; Jack the Ripper, Witches, Dracula, Frankenstein and his Monster and many more.  But none of these big name stars is the narrator nor are they central to the action.

Instead the focus is on their familiar animals, primarily Snuff, the companion to Jack the Ripper, through whose canine point of view the story is told.  Each familiar has a distinctive voice and presence and adds to the character of whatever master they serve.  This structure makes the story approachable for all ages. Adults will get a kick out of the macabre humor and the many nods to classic literary monsters, while the kids have the entertaining and wacky animals to focus on, without getting too scared.

This book, to my mind, is a prime example of the art of “show, don’t tell”.  Throughout the story, the reader is given bits and pieces of information about the ancient "game" which all the "players" have gathered to complete.  At the outset, the players and their familiars clearly know more than we do, but as the story progresses the curtains are opened by increments to shed light on the story at just the right time to keep the reader interested, but still thoroughly in the dark.  The mystery of the book is part of its charm and appeal and, even after the central secret has been revealed, the reader is drawn to continue to the resolution.

It is so full of fine details and clever bits of writing, not to mention sly references to classic horror stories, that it has stood up tremendously well to multiple readings.  I suppose that at some point I might stop re-reading it but I can't see that happening anytime soon.

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