The Depths of Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean

These days, H.P. Lovecraft seems to appear in just as many works of fiction as Cthulhu. But I can’t imagine that Lovecraft, who held himself in such high regard, would be entirely happy with the new forms his literary immortality has taken. Paul La Farge’s new book The Night Ocean would appall its inspiration, and that’s one of the many reasons you should read it.

As Tobias Carroll wrote recently, it’s become very difficult to talk about the purveyor of the weird and master of the unnamable without bringing up the crank, the racist, and the misogynist who shared his body. Horror readers may remember the pompous “old-purple-prose” of Charles Stross’s novella Equoid; comics fans may have met the prissily vicious racist in Warren Ellis’s Planetary or the more sympathetic figure in Alan Moore’s Providence. Michel Houellebecq, best known in this country for being French and perennially controversial, wrote a biographical essay praising Lovecraft for the courage to be Against the World, Against Life.

Lovecraft’s protagonists have a tendency to disappear, though they tend to leave their manuscripts behind so that we, the readers, can find out what has happened to them. Usually “what has happened” involves some combination of nameless ritual, unutterable horror, degenerate cultists, and inhuman monster. The Night Ocean begins with a disappearance, but never once hints at the supernatural. Charlie Willett, writer, Lovecraft obsessive, and psychiatric patient, has fled a mental hospital, hitched a ride to a forest, and vanished into a lake. His wife, Marina, isn’t sure Charlie’s really dead, but she has no illusions of supernatural intervention. Cthulhu sleeps beneath the Pacific in R’yleh; he wouldn’t deign to rest beneath Agawam Lake in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

As Marina recounts the story from their first meeting to the plunge from grace that ended in icy New England waters, the clues to scandal, fraud, adultery, and betrayal that litter the first chapter gradually come into focus, though Marina and Charlie both learn that some questions are by their nature unanswerable.

Charlie’s downfall begins when he discovers the Erotonomicon, a privately printed book from the early nineteen-fifties that seems to be Lovecraft’s personal sex diary. The early passages of the Erotonomicon show Lovecraft buying sex from Providence dockworkers and pubescent boys. Despite the daytime author’s paranoia about inferior races, the nighttime Lovecraft of the Erotonomicon has no compunction about interracial sex. Just what Lovecraft is doing with his partners remains unclear, as he writes in a ludicrous Mythos-code: Just what does it mean to “perform a Yog-Sothothe,” to complete “the Ablo ritual”? The greatest portion of the diary concerns Lovecraft’s relationship with Robert Barlow, a sixteen-year-old fan that Lovecraft stayed with in Florida for two months.

Charlie, a talented writer currently in need of a subject, soon takes a research trip to Barlow’s home in Florida, where he finds compelling evidence for an incredible secret. I don’t want to go any further lest I spoil one of the many surprises this novel offers. The true nature Lovecraft and Barlow’s relationship remains unknown, but attempts to uncover it bring the book’s characters to some very strange places. Great revelations turn out to be false and are then found to be possible after all; there are lies embedded in lies and truths denied; we are tossed by the waves of The Night Ocean until we no longer know which way is up.

Though the Erotonomicon is, thankfully, a La Farge invention, Barlow, like most of The Night Ocean’s characters, really lived. After Lovecraft’s death, he moved to Mexico City, where he became one of the world’s authorities on Aztec culture. He killed himself in 1951 after being blackmailed for his homosexuality. It’s a shocking ending to a sad life, and La Farge examines and re-examines the circumstances surrounding and the motives for Barlow’s suicide.

At first, The Night Ocean may seem to be a novel about Lovecraft; then it seems to be about Barlow, but as Charlie’s investigations proceed and as Marina struggles through her loss, the book grows beyond either man. The horror writer and his young friend are only two of the many lonely and demanding men in the novel. They all lie to themselves, deceive others, and remain solitary no matter what attention or affection they receive. These men suffer, it’s true, but as Marina finally remarks, they’re also capable of quite astounding acts of evil. Nyarlathotep are Cthulhu monstrous for their grandiose indifference, while La Farge’s men become monstrous by their grubby self-obsession.

Enjoying The Night Ocean requires no prior knowledge of H.P. Lovecraft, but readers who know their sff and their fan history will find in Paul La Farge a kindred spirit. Very early in the book, we learn how a youthful Charlie demonstrated his enthusiasm for Lovecraft: “We sewed ourselves black robes, and walked up and down Broadway in the middle of the night, holding signs that read THE END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH—GIVE TO THE CULT OF CTULHU.” After reading this novel, with its vast knowledge of and evident love for “the weird,” I am not at all surprised to learn that Paul La Farge drew this incident from his own life. While it hasn’t been marketed as such, La Farge may have written the first great novel of fandom. There’s a memorable account of the first WorldCon; multiple appearances by Frederik Pohl, Donald Wollheim (founder of DAW Books), and William S. Burroughs; and cameo roles for Isaac Asimov, S.T. Joshi, Ursula Le Guin, Hannes Bok, Robert Bloch, and August Derleth. There’s also a snooty European nihilist modeled on Houellebecq; his lecture on “posthuman jellyfish” is one the book’s funniest moments.

While “fannish” readers will enjoy reading a novel by a fan and about fans, La Farge is too honest a writer to show only the genre’s best face. From the bitter disputes conducted by mimeographed fans and angry telegrams to contemporary Twitter fights and doxing campaigns, La Farge gives us eighty years of fans behaving badly. Fandom is a lifeline that is all too often twisted into a chain or a noose.

For a novel about H.P. Lovecraft, The Night Ocean is surprisingly moving; for a story about the recondite back alleys of science fiction, it is surprisingly accessible; for a historical fiction, it is surprisingly contemporary; and for a novel about the unknowable and the mysterious, it is remarkably satisfying. The Night Ocean deserves the highest praise.

The Night Ocean is available from Penguin Press.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies; he is helped in the former by his day job in the publishing industry. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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