In Paul La Farge’s 'The Night Ocean’ a Lovecraft Biographer Falls Prey to a Hoax

Cover of 'The Night Ocean' courtesy of Penguin Random House
Cover of 'The Night Ocean' courtesy of Penguin Random House
Photo of JW McCormack
17 May 2017

The protagonist of the American novelist’s newest work disappears after investigating the romantic history of the famed horror writer.

The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge would almost certainly be the finest horror novel to extemporize on the mythos of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—the Providence author of “weird fiction” and the inspiration behind hundreds of eerie stories and metal bands, whose xenophobic politics still cast a shadow over his fandom—if it qualified. But this novel is its own beast, not so much because it resists the hoary grimoires, alien netherworlds, and reliably arcane vocabulary that define the genre, but because it returns Lovecraft and his ambiguous legacy to the world as we know it, which is, oh yes, much more horrible than any “Colour of Space” or squamous Cthulhu.

Our narrator for most of the book is Marina Willett, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma, whose husband Charlie has disappeared following the publication of a book in which he alleges that the “old gent” Lovecraft had an affair with a younger man named Robert Barlow and even cohabitated with his family in Florida for a time in 1934. Charlie Willett’s work is based on the infamous Erotonomicon (counterpoint to the infernal Necronomicon of Lovecraft yore), a diary where Lovecraft recorded his affair with Barlow, then sixteen, who would go on in his adulthood to chair the anthropology department at Mexico City College. It was there, on the second day of the new year in 1951, that Barlow, rather than risk being outed as homosexual by a young student named William Burroughs, took his own life. What Charlie’s book presupposes is—maybe he didn’t? Staking his reputation on his discovery of the real Barlow, who he claims has been living in a Canadian resort town under the name L.C. Spinks, Charlie winds up with more than enough rope to hang himself (so to speak). After his apparent suicide, it falls to Marina to pick up the trail and try to separate the facts from the fakes in a world where the differences seems increasingly incidental.

As synopsis, it is not inaccurate. But this set-up, as I’m giving it to you, sounds much more serpentine than it feels on the page. It leaves out the (scandalous) tenderness with which La Farge endows ur-weirdo H. P. Lovecraft, who calls masturbation ‘doing Yogge-Sothothe,’ gay intercourse ‘Ablo and the Nether Gulfs,’ and tells Barlow nothing they do can be wrong because all human beings are cosmically insignificant from the point of view of a visitor from Betelgeuse:

“At your age, Bobby, you naturally imagine that what you feel is important. When someone slights you, you want to murder them! And when you think you’re in love…When you get to be the Old Gent’s age, however, you’ll understand that everything you feel has been felt before, over and over, until it’s as worn out as my 1917 overcoat. Really, it’s comical. Each of our so-called individual emotions is just a repetition of something that has been felt countless thousands of times before, by countless others. From that point of view, it’s hard to put much stock in feeling. Do you see my point?”

And yet, almost despite himself, tenebrous old H.P. is warmed into some late-onset humanity by his lover. He even contemplates giving up cyclopean grave-cities for a porridgey-sounding family chronicle to be written while he and Barlow live openly in Paris and tour Scotland (“I hear their castles are exceedingly ancient and gloomy,” to which Barlow replies, “We’ll find the gloomiest one.”) At the heart of the book is Barlow, who we receive piecemeal, potentially fabricated and yet always vividly placed in the mid-century carnival of dueling prejudices. One moment he’s a forcibly closeted hanger-on in the parlors and convention floors where science-fiction is being bombastically founded by Isaac Asimov and company; then, following Lovecraft’s death, he’s a foiled initiate to the lofty mysteries of pre-European Mexico. Effectively blackmailed by “Bill” Burroughs and a student acquaintance, who hope to finance an Ayahuasca trip to Colombia, Barlow recounts Bill’s pastime of drowning cats in a bathtub in order to gain “secret knowledge,” and reflects wistfully: “Howard had made an effort, however hopeless, to be human. Bill made no effort.”

This question, regarding the costs of being human in the face of cosmic inconsequence and annihilating hatred, comes up again when, prior to his disappearance, Charlie finds the release party for his newly-published expose hijacked by a French writer named Gilles Baron who lectures on the superiority of jellyfish as a species: “if we wanted to see the future of humanity, we had only to study these translucent creatures, which built nothing, plotted nothing, but merely floated, and stung.” The book is briefly a success, until holes in Spink’s story begin to be uncovered by the press. As a literary pariah, Charlie is admitted to a psych ward, from which he escapes. When Marina, in the course of searching for him, comes across Internet trolls suggesting (out of some dark breed of Lovecraft loyalism) to sneak child snuff porn onto his hard drive, she thinks: “I was glad, then, that Charlie and I had never returned to that conversation about having children. It wasn’t just that I would have been afraid for their safety. I didn’t want to bring new people into this world.”

Ultimately, the big surprise of the book is that it is not really a Borgesian criss-cross. Its progression is not measured by plot twists, but by the kind of feeling from which escapist science-fiction is supposed to deliver us. For one thing, suicide haunts The Night Ocean —the title refers to an apocryphal story by Barlow and Lovecraft in which distant drowned bodies beckon an artist from outside his beachfront rental—but the real horror is the damage inflicted on the families suicide leaves behind. La Farge is similarly frank in his depiction of the sci-fi circuit, both its contemporary Facebook-commenter contingent and its Weird Tales heyday, where the petty feuds between the editors of Utopian-socialist fanzines and crypto-fascist neckbeards says much more about historical praxis than time machines and futuristic robots.

This isn’t to say that La Farge is indifferent to the cause of prototypical pulp fiction—far from it! The scholastic detective story that encompasses much of The Night Ocean is immaculately researched and infused with care for the material. Since it is assembled by Marina, her annotations give a nice touch of insight, helpfully identifying dozens of walk-on cameos by the likes of fellow horror writer Clark Ashton Smith or fantasy novelist Fritz Leiber or explaining a sly reference to Lovecraft’s novella The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Real-world Lovecraft-biographer S. T. Joshi puts in an appearance, and while Gilles Baron might not be a dead ringer for Michel Houellebecq—who penned a monograph on Lovecraft—or Vilém Flusser—who wrote a book in praise of a species of vampiric squid—he’s an suitably dour approximation of the two.

As in La Farge’s other books, notably his ersatz historical novel of the Parisian architect Baron Haussman, the line between research and fiction is so porous that it all but vanishes. Part of what emerges from bringing Lovecraft’s “lengthening shadow” into the light is how universally human his work really is. The reanimator Herbert West brings bodies back from death because he wants more from life; the fear of interplanetary interlopers in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is the recognition that you are somehow invisibly different from those around you; and the monster Charles Dexter Ward summons from its ancestral labyrinth is history itself. The Night Ocean’s cast of hoaxers and obsessed literati fight over the facts of Lovecraft’s life because each is in their way an outsider—a gay man in small town America, a morphine addicted veteran, a Communist under McCarthysim—who wants ownership of the dream; they too ‘imagine what they feel is important.’ But it falls to each of us, upon awakening, to find a reason to go on “having so-called individual emotions” in a world where either everything or nothing is real: “a planet-sized hoax,” as Marina puts it, “cobbled together from books.”

by Paul La Farge
Published by Penguin Press
Hardcover | 400 pp | $27.00

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