The tale is narrated by Snuff, a dog of unnatural intelligence, helping his master, Jack, to make arcane preparations for some imminent great event. Soon we meet other animal companions to odd and oddly familiar people likewise making preparations. We have met them or their like before, including the Good Doctor animating his Experiment Man with lightning, the no longer entirely human Count, the mad Russian Monk, and more. And Jack is preternaturally good with a knife. But what they are about is a mystery, which they do not need to explain to each other and do not deign to explain to the reader. As a further complication all the murder and mayhem attracts the attentions of the Great Detective from London.
If you wish to fully enjoy the unfolding of the central puzzle then skip the next paragraph.
As the animals talk among themselves, hinting, probing, trading secrets and favors, we slowly learn that on the coming Halloween night the fate of the world, indeed its very nature, will be be decided, as on certain previous Halloweens, by a rule-bound magical conflict, part ceremony and part duel, between two teams of players. All the collecting of artifacts, grisly meddling with corpses, occult calculating, and casting of spells throughout the month is each player arming for the event, trying to gain most advantage for his or her side while keeping team allegiance secret for as long as possible.
That is an accurate description of the plot but it makes the book sound far too serious. While there are seriously dramatic and even frightening parts, the overall tone is light with ample Zelaznyesque humour. Even though the fate of the world is ultimately at stake and their own lives at risk in the interim, the players generally go about their eldritch business with the stolid air of the competent tradesman putting in another dull day of work and demonstrating by their interactions with each other that opposition need not mean enmity any more than alliance must mean friendship. And puns when least expected, even puns to save the day.
Being a kind of diary for Snuff, this delightful book has chapters of greatly varying length, one for each day of October until the grand conclusion at Halloween. This has inspired some fen (plural of “fan”) to celebrate the month by ceremonially reading a single chapter each night of the month. We joined their ranks last year as Mr. read to Mrs. at bedtime, in a variety of voices with much more than his normal inflection. Even so, his vocal range is not great and he grew dismayed at the increasing number of falsettos required. And each one slightly different. Be warned. The Mrs. mercifully suggested he might try a variety of accents instead but he soldiered on as he had begun and will likely do so again this year. It seems more natural and easily remembered to make the squeaky squirrel talk faster than the squeaky bat rather than arbitrarily make one of them Italian or Swedish. Perhaps some vocal exercises while yet September may be wise.
Do give this book a try, even if you decide to read it entirely in one sitting. But if you can stand the suspense then pace yourself with the ritual chapter per night.
Happy Halloween to come!
Spoiler for Oct 23rd should any reader or young listener require comfort in getting through this tense chapter.
Snuff is rescued in time.