The Short Version: October begins and so too does a strange and deadly game. Jack and his loyal canine companion Snuff scout, connive, magick, and otherwise prepare for the 31st – when either openers or closers shall win and the world will either end… or go on…
The Review: What a delightfully unique novel. I’ve heard Zelazny touted by the likes of George R. R. Martin and Neil Gaiman but I’d never picked up one of his novels, until this strange green spine caught my eye at the Strand. I opened it to discover that each chapter is a night in said October – and I thought, as apparently so many others have before me, “why not read a chapter a night?”
And so I did. Every single night, with one exception (I got home very late), I read a chapter and so Snuff’s adventures played out in nearly-real time. I was immediately delighted, of course, to discover that the novel is written from the point of view of a dog – it’s The Art of Racing in the Rain but if the dog could actually talk and was perhaps magic and also there was none of the sappy stuff about life and death. Although there is absolutely a life-and-death struggle happening here, it should be stated.
One of the fascinating side-effects of reading the book over so long a period of time is that the mysteries inherent in the novel remain mysterious for far longer than they ever might otherwise. What is this mysterious Game that the characters are all engaged in? What does it mean to be an opener or a closer? Hints are dropped and inferences can be made but it’s all kept rather mysterious until about two-thirds of the way through, just after Snuff’s feline friend (and sometime opponent) Greymalk takes him into the Dreamlands. I won’t go too much into what the Game turns out to be but I will say that I haven’t visited the Dreamlands since Johannes Cabal went there and while they are a fascinating place, rich with still-untapped imaginative raw material, I must say I felt a smidge disappointed when the Lovecraftian angle appeared. It doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of the book at all, but it does reduce it from something exceptional to… something just a little less.
Still, the novelty of the book redeems any minor failing. Where else will you see Sherlock Holmes (here called “the Great Detective”) hunting around talking dogs and mad vicars and witches and vampires and the like? Dracula makes an appearance (as “the Count”) as does “the Good Doctor” Frankenstein and his monster. A delightful red herring occurs involving the Doctor, incidentally and apropos of nothing – but it was the sort of imaginative twist that made me downright gleeful.
And Snuff is an absolutely winning narrator. The things he chooses to focus on in his storytelling befit his canine nature, although they also note his heightened sense of understanding. He does regular rounds through the mansion where he and Jack (ostensibly Jack the Ripper) live, checking on the Things that they have trapped there… he pees on things to mark territory… and he carries out complex calculations in his head to determine locations of things. It’s great fun, especially for those who believe that dogs are smarter than we sometimes give them credit for being.
I should note that, this year, there was a sense while reading that the book began to drop the pulse a bit at times. This said, I wholeheartedly believe that this was due to the way I decided to read it, because the book is actually a speedy read. If you added up all the minutes I took to read it over 31 days, it probably didn’t take much more than two or three hours to burn through the whole thing – but some of those chapters are shorter and there isn’t much in the way of progress (as one might expect, realistically: amazing things don’t happen every night, otherwise life would be unbearable) and, as such, those nights felt… disappointing, comparatively. I was never impatient – that should be made quite clear – but I was sometimes left wanting more. This could’ve been easily solved by just… reading another chapter… but how could I? It was, after all, October.
(Oh and PS: Gahan Wilson’s illustrations are both creepy and wonderful. They’re worth a book unto themselves.)
Rating: 5 out of 5. The sort of October/Halloween classic that rightly deserves that moniker. Zelazny is both sending up and paying homage to classic horror and mystery – everything from Sherlock Holmes to Dracula, Lovecraft to Aleister Crowley – and in so doing adds himself to the canon in the most unassuming of ways. Snuff is a narrator for the ages and the Game, so simple and yet so deadly, does right the spirit of Halloween. I wonder if this book might not be a read for every year, in one way or another (in the same way you’ve always got to watch at least a bit of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Hocus Pocus). This is what the season is all about. I hope your October was as good as mine, this year – I’ll see you there again next year.