[For the October 30th highlight, click here.]
Proverbial hell breaks loose on Halloween night, and the twists come wicked quick. We discover who murdered who, and who isn’t really dead (and has a surprising affiliation). Non-players appear at the manifestation ceremony and physically interfere, while others affect the outcome through more subtle manipulation. Like a trick-or-treater’s candy bag, this entire climactic chapter of Zelazny’s novel is stuffed with sinful delights. But the ultimate highlight comes from the great banefire the players gather round:
It goes all the way back into the misty vastness of our practices. Both sides require it, so in this sense it is a neutral instrument. After midnight, it comes to burn in more than one world, and we may add to it those things which enhance our personal strengths and serve our ends. It attracts otherworldly beings sympathetic to both sides, as well as neutral spirits who may be swayed by the course of the action. Voices and sights may pass through it, and it serves as a secondary, supportive point of manifestation to whatever the opening or closing object may be. Customarily, we all bring something to feed it, and it interacts with all of us throughout the ritual. I had urinated on one of our sticks, for example, several days earlier. There are times when players have been attacked by its flames; and I can recall an instance when one was defended by a sudden wall of fire it issued. It is also good for disposing of evidence. It comes in handy on particularly cold nights, too.
Hearkening back to the ancient roots of Halloween, this hilltop scene of blazing flame is perfectly bewitching in its atmosphere. Snuff’s description of the banefire also captures all the wittiness and occult complexity that has characterized the narrative all October long.
[For the October 29th highlight, click here.]
The penultimate chapter of Zelazny’s novel clarifies the parameters of the Game and establishes the stakes for the players. Snuff explains: “Those of us who remain will gather atop the hill at midnight. We will bring kindling, and we will cooperate in the building of a big fire. It will serve as illumination, and into it will be cast all the bones, herbs, and other ingredients we have been preparing all month to give ourselves an edge to confound our enemies.” The participants will encircle “the Gateway–which we have already determined to be the stone bearing the inscription.” The Opening and Closing Wands will be wielded. Things could get physical, and “psychic attacks may be shot back and forth. Disasters may follow. Players may fall, or go mad, catch fire, be transformed.” And eventually, “at the end of our exercises, which may take only a little while, though conceivably they could last until dawn (and in such a stalemated case, the closers would win by default)–the matter will be decided. Bad things happen to the losers.” All this stage-setting for the Halloween night mayhem represents the highlight for October 30th.
[For the October 28th highlight, click here.]
“Checking out the aftermath of the fire” at the Good Doctor’s place, Snuff encounters Needle sleeping in the hayloft of the barn. The two are soon attacked by the crossbow-wielding Vicar Roberts, but are saved by the Great Detective in his Linda Enderby disguise. The Great Detective then conveys to Snuff everything he has deduced about the Game and its players. Snuff tries to play dumb, affecting all the mannerisms of a beast of “subhuman intelligence”: “idiot slobbering,” yawning, scratching his ear with his hind leg. The Great Detective (who also announces his intention to try to save Lynette from being sacrificed during the Halloween ceremony, since Larry is likely to be hampered by his own “moon madness” and the silver-bullet-loaded pistol of the vicar) isn’t fooled one bit by Snuff’s act. But the amusing contrast between the detective’s expression of Sherlockian brilliance and Snuff’s simultaneous “dumb dog” routine forms the highlight for October 29th.
[For the October 27th highlight, click here.]
Various plot pieces fall into place on this night. With his recalculation of the pattern, Snuff at last identifies the site of the Halloween face-off: “It was here, Dog’s Nest, amid its broken circle of stone, where the final act would take place.” Bubo also conveniently summarizes what the Game is all about, articulating to Snuff the story “of how a number of the proper people are attracted to the proper place in the proper year on a night in the lonesome October when the moon shines full on Halloween and the way may be opened for the return of the Elder Gods to Earth, and of how some of these people would assist in the opening of the way for them while others would strive to keep the way closed.” For all the neatness of this chapter of Zelazny’s novel, its highlight arises from a reference to previous bit of professional messiness. After Jack comments that the other players will also divine the pattern’s central location within the next few days, Snuff replies, “…And the word will be passed. True. I can only recall one time when no one figured it properly.” It was a rare occasion a long time ago, Jack remarks, and Snuff provides further exposition: “Yes, and we all sat down to dinner together, made a joke of it, and went our ways.” Skilled, veteran players Snuff and Jack may be, but their Game record does contain one laughable tie.
[For the October 26th highlight, click here.]
The Good Doctor’s residence/secret laboratory has burned down (in a plot echo of the climax of Frankenstein). At the site of the razed home, Snuff and Graymalk meet Bubo, who explains: “The experiment man got mad at the Good Doctor and started wrecking the lab. Sparks from some of the equipment set the place burning.” More importantly, the rat confesses that he has been passing himself off as a Game player to “get respect and decent treatment from the rest” of the animals in the neighborhood. “I’d been hanging around the Good Doctor’s place already,” Bubo says, “for the leftovers from his work. So I let on that he was in the Game and I worked for him.” In actuality, the Good Doctor had just taken up residence there for the privacy it provided him as he conducted his experiments. This key bit of information concerning the Good Doctor (neither a closer nor an opener) also explains why Snuff’s calculations of the pattern have been consistently off: he’s included one Game participant too many (not failed to identify a “secret player”). The revelation that Zelazny has been employing a red herring in the case of this particular Universal-Monster-movie-alluding character comprises the highlight for the October 27th section of the novel.
[For the October 25th highlight, click here.]
The latest entry in Snuff’s narrative begins with the admission, “It was a slow day.” Snuff doesn’t even have any official rounds to make, so he decides “to prowl the woods, to keep the old instincts in shape.” Along the way, he senses someone following him: the prowler that the ward-screen previously detected snooping around outside Jack’s residence. After the man comments about all the peculiarity in the area, Snuff warns him about the upcoming Halloween upheaval: “Weird stuff” is set to transpire at month’s end. “A little specialized craziness. Stay away from any human gatherings that night.” But I’ll select the final paragraph of this short, change-of-pace chapter of Zelazny’s novel as the October 26th highlight: “Overhead, growing in strength, the older, wiser moon paced me. I’d give her a run for her silver.” The clever wordplay and poetic imagery presented by these closing lines serves as a reminder that for all its famous-monster references, the novel really proves so enjoyable because of Zelazny’s stellar prose.
[For the October 24th highlight, click here.]
Last night’s Halloween-style prank is given another wicked twist when the burnt body of Owen is discovered the next day in a basket right alongside the charred remains of the vanquished Things. The October 25th section of Zelazny’s novel focuses on the aftermath of the murder–on Snuff and Graymalk’s efforts to assist Owen’s surviving familiar Cheeter. According to the talking squirrel, his master “made me smarter. He gave me special things I can do, too, like that glide [down from a tree]. But I lost something for it. I want to trade all this in and go back to being what I was–a happy nut-chaser who doesn’t care about opening and closing.” What Cheeter has lost is his own shadow, magically separated from his body by Owen and bound to an occult diagram on the wall by seven silver nails (Snuff and Graymalk work diligently to liberate the shadow and restore it to its former caster). The revelation that the narrative’s familiars are not necessarily demonic entities in beastly disguise but rather magically-boosted animals from nature forms the highlight of this late October night.
[For the October 23rd highlight, click here.]
On this night in Zelazny’s novel, “all hell breaks loose.” During a bout of sublimely foul weather (“no normal storm but a manifestation of magical attack”), a long-foreshadowed event finally occurs: the various Things trapped at Jack and Snuff’s residence break free of their respective prisons. The closer and his familiar leap into action, and an epic battle ensues. Jack and Snuff succeed in slaying the would-be escapees, but at some cost, since the hoped-for advantage from keeping the Things in the first place has now been lost (“Under the proper constraints,” Snuff explains, “they had been intended as the bodyguard for our retreat, should one be necessary, following the events of the final night, after which they would have had their freedom in some isolated locale, obtaining the opportunity to add to the world’s folklore of a darker nature.”). The ensuing problem of what to do with the soon-to-be-rotting bodies of the monstrosities delivers the highlight of the night. As midnight chimes and enables Snuff to speak aloud, he proposes: “I say we take them over to Owen’s place and stuff them into some of his wicker baskets. Then we haul them up into the big oak tree, set fire to them, and run like hell.” This “great Halloween gag” (“even if it is a little early”) sets the stage for October’s final week, which promises to be filled with dark mischief.
[For the October 22nd highlight, click here.]
Another lengthy chapter, and one that pairs nicely with its predecessor, as the ancient cat’s prophecies to Snuff in the Dreamworld quickly bear out. The predicted loss of a friend occurs after Rastov is found hung (a murder by Vicar Roberts that is made to look like a suicide), and Rastov’s familiar Quicklime decides to retire from the Game (and go live in the woods). Later, after Snuff has a violent run-in with Roberts, the vicar has him dognapped and sold off to a trio of London vivisectionists. Unfortunately for the animal mutilators, Snuff’s master Jack is a man possessed when he comes to rescue his faithful companion, and the carnage that Jack creates at chapter’s end when he rips through the vivisectionists provides the “seas and messes” of blood “all around” that the ancient cat foretold to Snuff. But my chosen highlight for the October 23nd section of Zelazny’s novel is actually drawn from the very beginning of the chapter. Heading outside first thing that morning, Snuff discovers a potential red flag: “A black feather lay near our front door. Could be one of Nightwind’s. Could be openers on a nasty spell. Could just be a stray feather. I carried it across the road to the field and pissed on it.” Snuff is so eloquent and witty, it’s easy to forget sometimes that the intelligence of this crafty familiar is contained in a dog’s body. Here, though, his recounting of his recourse to a basic canine function furnishes a wonderful contrast between the cerebral and the physical. Snuff’s urination appears to be a practical act that washes away any magic possibly attached to the feather, but his debasing gesture also serves as quite a carnivalesque flourish.
[For the October 21st highlight, click here.]
This next chapter of Zelazny’s novel begins with with the next leg of the running joke: the Thing in the Circle tries to entice Snuff with the form of a chihuahua, but Snuff declines the offer by bluntly claiming “Language barrier.” Snuff and Graymalk then venture up to Dog’s Nest for some hilltop recalculation of the pattern. While there, they are forced to take shelter from a storm, and discover a stone with strange engravings. Graymalk makes the offhand remark that she hopes “Nyarlahotep, Cthulhu, and all the rest of the unpronounceables” appreciate their efforts. Apparently, the Elder Gods are touchy, because they proceed to reach out through the suddenly-blazing stone and attempt to singe Graymalk with a lightning strike (Snuff wonders if such display of power “were simply another instance of the famous inscrutability which I sometimes think to be better understood as childishness”). The attack opens a gate, and the two familiars are drawn through it into the fantastic space of the Dreamworld (which hardcore fans of weird fiction will recognize as a nod to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath). Upon arrival, Graymalk launches into a “litany of Dreamworld geography,” in dizzying mimicry of Lovecraft’s florid Orientalist description (e.g. “To the north again, one may behold the charnel gardens of Zura, place of unattained pleasures, the templed terraces of Zak, the double headlands of crystal at the harbor of Sona-Nyl, the spires of Thalarion…”). Zelazny’s knack for simultaneously pastiching and parodying the Lovecraftian, nowhere more evident than in this chapter, forms the highlight of the night of October 22nd.