Book Review

A Choice of Evils: How Roger Zelazny Created a Heroic Jack the Ripper

In 1888 a killer stalked the streets of London’s Whitechapel district, brutally and ritualistically murdering women. The killer, dubbed Jack the Ripper, captured lurid headlines and the imagination of the public. Fictionalized versions of his story started appearing as early as October of 1888, only a few weeks after the discovery of the first victim. Since then hundreds of stories have been written about Jack, his victims, and his legacy. No fictional treatment of the character, however, has ever been approached like the character of “Jack” in Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October. Rumor has it that someone bet Zelazny that he couldn’t write a story in which the reader rooted for Jack the Ripper as a hero. According to the rules of the wager, Jack could not be a “modified version” of the character where it wasn’t “really” Jack who committed the murders; the character had to be the 1888 serial killer who committed the crimes. Whether the rumor is true or not, Zelazny created a fascinating narrative with a host of characters from literature, history, and film—including Jack the Ripper, Dracula, Frankenstein, Rasputin, Sherlock Holmes, and more—in which a deadly game is played in a rural suburb of Victorian London.

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SPOILERS AHEAD

Every once in a while- when the moon is full on a Halloween night- a group gathers and a game begins…The game of saving the world from evil.

This is a difficult novel to discuss without giving away too many spoilers, so definitely stop reading at this point if you want to read the book without too many clues.

Zelazny borrows from Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft in his narrative, but gives the story his own spin. A few times each century the full moon will fall on Halloween. When this happens, a doorway can open which will allow the Elder Gods of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos to return to earth. Two groups—called Openers and Closers—compete in a ritualized power struggle to determine whether or not the world will be destroyed and remade. There are references to Nyarlathotep (the Crawling Chaos) and Shub-Niggurath (the Black Goat with a Thousand Young) in the story, but it is Cthulhu himself who tries to emerge from the Gateway at the end.

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Zelazny works with a large group of iconic characters and places them in a traditional Victorian village setting: Larry Talbot, the lycanthrope in the 1941 film The Wolf Man; Rastov, based on the Russian monk Rasputin who influenced Tsar Nicholas II; the Count, who through his manner and speech suggest Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula; the Good Doctor and his “experiment man,” who suggest Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; and the Great Detective and his Companion, who clearly resemble Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

But it is Jack the Ripper who holds center stage in the novel. His “dog” Snuff, who is actually Jack’s familiar, narrates it. Through Snuff’s perspective readers learn about Jack, who is more than he seems on the surface:

 

“Some said that he was Cain himself, doomed to walk the Earth, marked; other said that he’d made a pact with one of the Elders who secretly wished to thwart the others; none really knew.” (Zelazny, 1993).

 

Jack possesses a cursed knife blade, and also hosts many other curses that he picked up through the years. He uses this knife, and other tools, to collect body parts—ingredients—for potions and spells that will help him keep the Gateway shut. Jack is on the side of Good in this novel, committing horrible acts in order to prevent the Elder Gods from sweeping over the Earth and destroying it. The Openers, of course, are committing equally vile acts to achieve the opposite purpose. This contest, which they call the Game, is the main mystery of the novel. Which player is on which side? Who can be trusted? And how will characters that are outside of the game effect the outcome?

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In the novel, Jack is cheerful, pleasant, and faces his responsibility as a Closer in a heroic manner. The character of the Ripper is visible on the page only when Snuff is in danger of being vivisected by the opposite side. Yet in the story the character of Jack is the same person who brutally murdered the women in London’s Whitechapel district. His “nocturnal activities” are referenced several times, although not described in detail. In effect, Zelazny is offering the reader a choice of evils where monsters and humans either stand together to prevent the destruction of the world as we know it or work together to usher in the darkness. In this instance, when Jack and Snuff are working to save the world, it is hard not to root for them to succeed.

A Night in the Lonesome October was a finalist for the Nebula Award in 1995.

 

References

Zelazny, R. (1993). A night in the lonesome October. New York: William Morrow.

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