Read a Halloween-Themed Fantasy Novel That Perfectly Captures the Horrors of 2020

Read a Halloween-Themed Fantasy Novel That Perfectly Captures the Horrors of 2020
Photo: tippawan cholviriyanant, Shutterstock

I love reading, but I love telling people what to read almost as much. For five years, it was basically my job. And because reading the right book at the right time — to suit a mood, answer a question, or satisfy a craving — is definitely a hack, I want to keep doing it. If you’re looking for just the right book to read, ask me. Otherwise, I’ll be happy just to tell you what you need to read right now.

At the climax of Roger Zelazny’s fantasy horror novel A Night in the Lonesome October, two warring forces begin a sinister, ritualistic ceremony as the full moon rises on Halloween night. At stake is the fate of the world, not to mention the lives of a few clever talking animals. It’s a bizarre scenario, to be sure, but one that feels entirely appropriate to 2020 — and not only because October’s full moon falls on Halloween for us, too.

Sherlock, Dracula and a talking dog

This was Roger Zalazny’s final novel, published in 1993, a few years before his death. Many consider it one of his best, which is no small feat for an award-winning writer revered among genre readers. On the surface, it is a silly lark — a period pastiche of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft teetering with cutesy conceits: Each chapter takes place during a single day in October, and the narrator is a preternaturally intelligent talking dog. But it’s also a work in deep conversation with classic horror and detective fiction. Characters and settings from the Holmes canon, Lovecraft’s Mythos, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and others appear on the page in guises that will be familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity with early science fiction and fantasy.

HBO’s Lovecraft Country and other recent literary works have interrogated the racism of H.P. Lovecraft’s creations, but this book isn’t that; it’s more a Kill Bill-esque homage, picking up the coolest toys in the Mythos playset — the otherworldly landscapes, the unknowable terror of the Elder Gods — but at least it leaves all of the hatred of Blacks and immigrants out of it.

Instead, we have something lighter, funnier, more fun — remember when I said the narrator is a dog? — but still occasionally chilling. Much of the joy is in the discovery, so I won’t say too much about the plot, but the basic setup is obvious from the get go: In an lonesome October toward the end of the 19th century, a collection of strange and sinister characters, all of them with animal familiars, many of them, er, familiar lifts from the pages of famous novels, have converged on a town outside London. Working independently but not entirely alone, these strange strangers attempt to assemble all the pieces they will need for a strange and consequential ritual that will take place on All Hallow’s Eve, by the light of the full moon. The characters are pitted against one another; one side is bent on unleashing indescribable horrors upon the Earth, and the other hopes to put a stop to it. It’s not clear until the very end where their true loyalties lie.

Our canine narrator is Snuff, the loyal, four-legged companion to a man who seems to be Jack the Ripper, though with an enchanted blade and a house stocked with magical prisons holding supernatural creatures at bay, he’s far more than a mere serial killer. It’s up to Snuff (ahem) to clear the path for his master’s success in what he calls the Game, and doing so means forming tentative, tit-for-tat alliances with the animal companions of the other “players,” including Graymalk, a sly, sarcastic cat that pals around with — who else — a witch. Its the dog’s job to figure out who else headed toward that Halloween showdown and figure out where there loyalties lie, an investigation that will pit him against someone referred to only as the Great Detective and involve murder, mayhem, and a trip into another dimension.

Why you need to read it now

Though it’s nearly 30 years old, A Night in the Lonesome October still feels fresh, its conceits still clever despite a bunch of other, newer books that have likewise blended Victorian horror with Sherlockian sleuthing (I can’t recommend last year’s The Affair of the Mysterious Letter highly enough). Its slender page count, propulsive mystery plot, and loveable doggo narrator make it easy to read in one sitting — there’s still time to finish it during this unusually lonesome October! But it feels somehow especially relevant this year, right now, and not just because there’s a full moon this Oct.31.

Never mind that HBO’s Lovecraft Country has vaulted the Mythos into pop culture prominence like never before — as the book barrels toward a showdown between warring forces of order and chaos, you can’t help but see the parallels to the uncertain fate awaiting all of us just a few days from now. I’ll let you decide which side of the 2020 presidential election represents order, and which chaos. Whatever your answer, it’s safe to say that if your team loses, your world will be irrevocably changed.

Are you looking for just the right book to read? Send me an email and I’ll try to answer your question in a future instalment of Read This.

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