The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
Horror fiction legend H.P. Lovecraft transformed reality into mythos. His tales of the Old Gods, lurking “inside the earth or under the sea” or just beyond a distant astral plane, often begin in the familiar American Northeast, somewhere between Providence, Rhode Island to Eastern Massachusetts. Lovecraft’s famed Arkham, for example, was a thinly veiled Salem, Mass; to Lovecraft it was not a realm of witches but of clandestine depravity, monsters and human madness. “Horror is premised on the experience of what we do not and cannot understand,” Lovecraft explains; He revels in the power of the unspeakable and the unknown.
Yet, Lovecraft’s fiction is so compelling in part due to its potential for plausibility. When other writers of the Weird Tales era were starbound with rayguns and rocketships, Lovecraft found fantasy at home. His prose is like that of a local historian with a secret, stories that feel as if a layer of dust was just blown from their pages. Brilliantly, Lovecraft developed a network of connected keystones underneath tales of comet sightings and invisible, unspeakable mysteries. Deities like Cthulhu and evil tomes like The Necronomicon reappear through his entire oeuvre, oftentimes appearing in a meager footnote that holds the potential to open a world of cosmic intrigue. The deeper one looks into the Lovecraft world, the wider it’s mythology spirals.
In The Night Ocean, Paul La Farge has built an expertly-researched fun house of Lovecraftian mythology, full of legends and apocrypha surrounding Howard Phillips himself. Although a novel, La Farge’s archival prowess is impeccably sharp and exemplifies not simply a passion for Lovecraft but a deeper understanding of fantasy fiction and why we tell stories.
The Night Ocean is narrated by Marina Willett, the wife of an obsessed Lovecraft scholar who goes missing from the hospital. Charlie had nearly lost his mind researching The Erotonomicon, a coded sexual diary of dubious origin, and, at Marina’s suggestion, checked in to an institution to force some distance between himself and his projects. Attributed to Lovecraft, The Erotonomicon had the potential to fill in the gossipy gaps in the Lovecraft mythos. It’s long been known that Lovecraft was a hateful man, a racist and a homophobe, but could he have been a repressed, closeted homosexual himself? If the euphemisms mean what they seem to suggest, that he and young pen pal Robert Barlow performed repeated “Elder Signs” and “Nether Gulfs” together, then The Erotonomicon might change the entire Lovecraft story.
Charlie obsesses over The Erotonomicon and eventually manages to get his hands on a copy. He decides to write a book about the whole thing, and attempts to track down Robert Barlow to corroborate his research. His book is published to critical acclaim but Charlie is faced with a world of backlash as stories of hoaxes, falsely attributed books and letters, and bootleg publishers question his work. Unsure of what’s real and what’s fake, his sanity begins to shudder. (How Lovecraftian a fate.)
The Night Ocean is divided into distinct acts (some of which run unevenly long) and it’s difficult to discuss later turns without exposing some of the novel’s many secrets. La Farge journeys from the Village in Manhattan to Mexico to the Belsen concentration camp, where a character recalls a time when he “roamed ancient kingdoms of waste; I swam in cold oceans and climbed desolate hills strewn with bodies of skeletons.” While characters in the novel consistently question the veracity of the stories they encounter, La Farge suggests that maybe we shouldn’t experience stories to believe them, but do so simply for the thrill of listening.
Now, what happens when a Lovecraft fan reads The Night Ocean, and sees all of La Farge’s characters on their very real bookshelf, from tomes by August Derleth and S.T. Joshi to Robert Barlow himself? A serious collector might even have a copy of Barlow and Lovecraft’s collaborative work Collapsing Cosmoes. So much of The Night Ocean is rooted in fact and La Farge is such an expert in this realm that he’s able to slip his fiction in unnoticed. It’s almost frightful that someone could execute a book like this and seamlessly integrate a life into such a richly-chronicled history. The Night Ocean gaslights its readers into believing an adulterated memory, and it’s astonishing to surrender to its undertow.