OCTOBER 20, 2015
THE ONLY piece of advice I have taped over my desk, other than a kind note of forgiveness from one of my first-year college English professors, is from the introduction to Roger Zelazny’s short story “Passion Play.” In that autobiographical essay, included in the late science fiction and fantasy writer’s collection The Last Defender of Camelot, he describes “a writing situation where you see an alternative to what you are doing, a mad, wild gamble of a way for handling something, which may leave you looking stupid, ridiculous or brilliant — you just don’t know which.” One option, of course, is to “play it safe,” to fall back on what you know (or hope) will work. But it is also possible, he writes, to take a chance on that “mad, wild gamble” — that is, to “trust your personal demon who delivered that crazy idea in the first place.” Since neither choice is any guarantee of success, Zelazny advises that, when faced with this dilemma, “Trust your demon.” That demon, a distant relative, maybe, of Poe’s Imp of the Perverse, is often at work in Zelazny’s best fiction. Take, for example, A Night in the Lonesome October, his last novel, first published in 1993, two years before his death, and recently reissued, complete with James Warhola’s fine cover and Gahan Wilson’s macabre and delightful illustrations, by Chicago Review Press.
Warhola’s painting, which features the book’s main characters, offers a visual summary of the novel’s plot, which I will be careful not to reveal in this essay. Look closely and you’ll see a Sherlock Holmes modeled on actor Peter Cushing, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, and a Dracula who looks more like the dashing Frank Langella than Bela Lugosi and his children of the night. Like Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, in which the protagonist chases the ghost of weird fantasy writer Clark Ashton Smith, A Night in the Lonesome October is a tribute to the grotesque cosmic landscape H. P. Lovecraft first dreamed up in the 1920s. Lovecraft’s grisly archive of images and fantastic creatures has inspired several generations of writers. Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, and Leiber are just a few of Lovecraft’s earliest disciples. More recently, Alan Moore — whose League of Extraordinary Gentlemen might be read as an indirect descendant of Zelazny’s book — has ventured again into the realm of the Elder Gods with Providence, featuring art by Jacen Burrows. There are plenty of Lovecraftian creepers threatening Zelazny’s protagonist, but, in this Halloween novel, the demon’s always at work. Our narrator, witty and pragmatic, is not a Victorian gentleman but a dog named Snuff, whose best friend is Graymalk the cat. Snuff’s master? A notorious serial killer named Jack.
I experienced the same thrill reading Zelazny as I did the first time I watched Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. When I was a kid, I discovered the miracle of cable TV when I realized I could watch WWOR out of New Jersey and NYC’s Channel 5. I’d already seen a few old movies on WTXX in Waterbury, Connecticut, even episodes of I Love Lucy and the George Reeves Adventures of Superman, but nothing like this: one monster after another, every Saturday afternoon. Sometimes, they’d even be in color, filled with actors speaking in lordly British accents. If you’ve seen the Abbott and Costello film, you’ll know that its title is misleading. The monster is there, of course, but so are Lugosi’s Dracula and Lon Chaney, Jr.’s lycanthropic antihero Larry Talbot (who also, by the way, shows up in Zelazny’s novel). “I didn’t think they were funny, even back then,” my grandmother once said as I watched the film (again), but I wasn’t paying attention to her or to the film’s thin spider web of a plot. I wondered instead who might show up next. Superman? The Lone Ranger? Where had all of these characters come from, and, more importantly, how did they know each other?
A few years later, after my mom bought me an electric typewriter, I started work on what I hoped would become a novel, one in which an elderly Sherlock Holmes teams up with Walter B. Gibson’s pulp hero The Shadow. I spent hours calculating how old Holmes would be at his first meeting with Lamont Cranston. I didn’t get very far with my notes, but I managed to come up with a blurry, cross-hatched drawing of the two heroes. If Alex Raymond were still alive, I thought, I’d ask him to draw this. And if all of these creatures exist in harmony on a table at the Scholastic Book Fair, what’s keeping them from joining forces? Other than, say, copyright restrictions and trademarks. But Sherlock Holmes has mastered that problem, too, along with Zelazny’s other public domain heroes, monsters, and villains.
A celebration of these characters, Zelazny’s book is also a love letter to his literary inspirations. He names those names on his dedication page. From Mary Shelley and Poe to Arthur Conan Doyle and Ray Bradbury, they’re all here, along with “the makers of a lot of old movies,” whom Zelazny does not list, but it’s easy to imagine who they might be: F. W. Murnau, Tod Browning, James Whale, perhaps Roy William Neill, the director of The Pearl of Death, the eeriest of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series. I discovered those on Channel 5, too, and wondered when Dracula might show up. Maybe I watched these movies on Saturday afternoons because, in the daylight, they were less terrifying. Or maybe they seemed like a good lead-in to 4:15 p.m. mass at the Immaculate Conception. If the movie was too long, if it wasn’t over by 3:30 p.m., I knew I’d miss the ending. But I never worried too much. I’d have time at mass to imagine how it might have ended.
A Night in the Lonesome October, then, can be read as an exercise in nostalgia, but the longing that Zelazny describes is not limited to this affection for “old movies.” His demon is at work here, too, challenging the reader’s expectations. Zelazny spends as much time developing the friendship between Snuff and Graymalk as he does introducing one familiar monster after another. Like furry, cuddlier versions of Vladimir and Estragon, the dog and cat slowly learn to trust each other. “Does anybody really care about a hungry cat, except for a few friends?” Graymalk asks as they try to identify the players in a “game” that will lead to a confrontation with the Elder Gods. “Maybe that’s all anybody has,” Snuff responds, “no matter how the big show is run.” This is a different sort of nostalgia than the one for storybook characters or matinee idols. Snuff, Graymalk, and the other talking animals in the novel embody the openness and simplicity that John Berger describes in his essay “Why Look at Animals?” Beginning in the 18th century, he writes, “this new invented ‘innocence’ begins to provoke in man a kind of nostalgia. For the first time, animals are placed in a receding past.” Like Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man, Snuff and Graymalk are magical relics of childhood, faded but still present, and, above all, honest.
For all its ghoulish pleasures, Halloween, especially the holiday that Zelazny describes, is about the promise of these unexpected, impossible friendships, and the chance meetings that inspire and shape them. Think about it this way: what other holiday enables Darth Vaders in home-made costumes to walk side-by-side with Spider-Men and Cinderellas? Clowns, pirates, and talking tigers waltz with firemen, police offices, mermaids, and G. I. Joes. At Halloween, one corporate property makes room for another as Han Solo and Flash Gordon hold hands and stroll together in peace (though I doubt very many Flash Gordons will be asking for candy this year).
What holds A Night in the Lonesome October together — the monsters, the talking animals, these dusty childhood heroes — is Zelazny’s prose style. This is the same author whose 1969 novel Damnation Alley, which inspired both the Hawkwind song and the 1977 Jan-Michael Vincent movie of the same name, veers suddenly from the spare, brutal dialogue of its early chapters to lush, Walt Whitman-like prose poems as it rumbles to a conclusion. Reading Damnation Alley is like watching a grindhouse film narrated by Robert Lowell. Snuff’s story is less spectacular, more intimate. Given the acuteness of his senses, it’s no surprise that he’s also a poet: “Growing moon. Angry cat. Feather on the wind. Autumn comes. The grass dies.” The pleasure of the novel is contained, in miniature, in those five lines. Even a long, idle Saturday afternoon, spent in such fine company as this, must come to an end. No one understands that better than Frankenstein’s monster. Lonely and misunderstood, he spends his time hoping to make friends with Graymalk the cat. Until he meets the vampire.
Over my desk, I’ve tacked a photo next to Zelazny’s advice about following one’s “demon.” When I finished the novel, I made a list of the different Halloween costumes my mom dreamed up for me three decades ago. She refused to spend money on the cheap plastic ones sold at the supermarket. So I was a Bob Kane/Bill Finger/Jerry Robinson Batman, with a hand-made Nosferatu-like cowl, then a soldier, a goblin, a vampire, a clown, and a girl with a blue dress and a white pocketbook (not in that order). This photo is from Halloween, 1980. I’m the one on the left with the Darth Vader mask. I felt like an imposter. It wasn’t a real Darth Vader mask. It was a copy, a bootleg, with white circles around the eyes and a white screen over the mouth. The other kids, I was certain, would laugh. Worse, I thought, they’d know: I wasn’t the real Darth Vader either. My lightsaber wasn’t a lightsaber, but a glow-in-the-dark space sword, found on clearance in a cardboard box at Kresge’s. Now, 35 years later, I don’t know what I was worried about. Look at the three kids with me: a Lone Ranger and two pirates, one of them wearing a red plastic bag on his head, a black nylon beard pasted to the side of his face. That afternoon came to an end, too, but at least I have a photo to prove that, for a moment, it was real. Later, after this photo was taken, I took a black marker to the mask and covered the white spaces. I still felt nothing like Darth Vader. The next year, as a vampire, one not bound by copyright law or by Hollywood standards of authenticity, I had a lot more fun.