This year marks the 80th anniversary of the death of H.P. Lovecraft, the notorious horror writer inspired by the ornate craftsmanship of Edgar Allan Poe and renowned for his ground-breaking—if rather nihilistic—perspective on humanity’s place in the cosmos. His writings have been enjoyed, rebuked, and analyzed by fans and scholars for decades, but Lovecraft the man remains in some ways as unknowable as the ancient god-like beings that dominate his mythos. Here’s what we do know: He died young, at the age of 46 in 1937, and wrote approximately 60 short stories, three long enough to qualify as novellas. We know that despite possessing a vibrant imagination, he couldn’t see past his own perceived racial superiority. We know that his marriage was troubled and that he was good friends with a writer and anthropologist named Robert Hayward Barlow.
That friend helped him write “The Night Ocean,” a 1936 psychological horror tale about a man who stays at the beach long past the summer season. The terror he experiences after an encounter with mysterious, shadowy figures leaves him so mentally incapacitated that he can’t fully describe the event in human language. “Now that I am trying to tell what I saw I am conscious of a thousand maddening limitations,” he laments.
In his beguiling new novel, The Night Ocean, Paul La Farge extends that short story’s themes of loneliness and disorientation into a spinning vortex of reality that further throws into question our ability to understand the world around us. But instead of pondering the existence of monsters, La Farge’s characters speculate about far more human matters: Was Lovecraft in love with his friend Barlow? Did he ever document their relationship? And is it possible that Barlow is still alive today, despite a record of his death in the mid-twentieth century? The book is a work of fiction, of course, but Lovecraft and Barlow both make appearances, as do William Burroughs, Ursula K. Le Guin, and S.T. Joshi, Lovecraft’s real-life biographer. Fact and fiction are mostly useless categories in this perplexing tale of forbidden love.
The mystery begins with the death of Charlie Willett, a freelance reporter and husband to Marina. He committed suicide, we learn, by drowning himself in a lake near a psych ward where he’d been living under the care of mental health professionals. The reason for his suicide isn’t hard for Marina to explain: A tell-all he’d written about Lovecraft’s homosexuality turned out to be based on two unreliable sources: the alleged diary of Lovecraft that detailed his love affair with Barlow and which Lovecraft had titled, of course, the Erotonomicon; and an interview with Barlow himself—a man who was supposed to be dead. When both critics and readers reject his work, Charlie begins to doubt not only his talent, but his sanity—that Barlow, after all, had seemed so convincing—and his downfall comes quickly. Following Charlie’s death, Marina embarks on a hunt for the truth about what happened to her husband—and to Barlow and Lovecraft. She’s entranced by the stories she uncovers, but every time she thinks she’s discovered the truth, it slips away, like a furtive sea creature diving under the water just as you look its direction.
The Night Ocean has no center. No single character dominates the story, and no one event serves as a foundation for all others. The plot unfolds like a series of Russian nesting dolls, and thrillingly so: Like the best of Lovecraft, this novel questions the capacity of language to describe reality with accuracy.
It also doesn’t shy away from racism. Like last year’s The Ballad of Black Tom, a Lovecraftian mystery by Victor LaValle, The Night Ocean criticizes Lovecraft as much as it celebrates him: Charlie, who’s biracial, fears what racial epithets Lovecraft fans might sling at him during readings, and Barlow (if it is Barlow!) finds himself torn between feelings of love for the author and disgust at his bigotry. In a world continuously haunted by the real-life horrors of racism and xenophobia, The Night Ocean proves to be more than a great read—it’s a timely meditation on the challenge of separating artist from art and the limits of human understanding.
The Night Ocean by Paul LaFarge
Published March 7, 2017
Paul LaFarge is the author of five books: The Night Ocean; The Artist of the Missing; Haussmann, or the Distinction; Luminous Airplanes; and The Facts of Winter. He’s also a regular contributor to The New Yorker.
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