Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Night Ocean, by Paul La Farge

Realperson fic starring H.P. Lovecraft in a gay soap opera.

The Night Ocean

Penguin Press, 2017, 389 pages

From the award-winning author and New Yorker contributor, a riveting novel about secrets and scandals, psychiatry and pulp fiction, inspired by the lives of H. P. Lovecraft and his circle.

Marina Willett, MD, has a problem. Her husband, Charlie, has become obsessed with H. P. Lovecraft, in particular with one episode in the legendary horror writer's life: In the summer of 1934, the "old gent" lived for two months with a gay teenage fan named Robert Barlow, at Barlow's family home in central Florida. What were the two of them up to? Were they friends - or something more? Just when Charlie thinks he's solved the puzzle, a new scandal erupts, and he disappears. The police say it's suicide. Marina is a psychiatrist, and she doesn't believe them.

A tour-de-force of storytelling, The Night Ocean follows the lives of some extraordinary people: Lovecraft, the most influential American horror writer of the 20th century, whose stories continue to win new acolytes, even as his racist views provoke new critics; Barlow, a seminal scholar of Mexican culture who killed himself after being blackmailed for his homosexuality (and who collaborated with Lovecraft on the beautiful story "The Night Ocean"); his student, future Beat writer William S. Burroughs; and L. C. Spinks, a kindly Canadian appliance salesman and science-fiction fan - the only person who knows the origins of The Erotonomicon, purported to be the intimate diary of Lovecraft himself.

As a heartbroken Marina follows her missing husband's trail in an attempt to learn the truth, the novel moves across the decades and along the length of the continent, from a remote Ontario town, through New York and Florida to Mexico City. The Night Ocean is about love and deception - about the way that stories earn our trust, and betray it.

H.P. Lovecraft has been the subject of much scholarship, criticism, and dissection over the past few years, with his pivotal place in modern genre fiction being cast against his infamous views, which are now obligatory to mention in the same breath as his name, because otherwise I suppose someone might read The Call of Cthulhu and not know that the author was a racist. (Personally, I find it rather amazing that in tales of Lovecraft, there are always supposedly fans who never knew what a bigot he was, considering I discovered it in about one hour of research when I wrote a biography about him in junior high school.)

H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft and the Love That Dare Not Speak its Name.

The Night Ocean (taking its title from an actual short story written by Lovecraft) is something that if not printed by a reputable publisher would bear a label that is considered a bit unsavory even in the world of fan fiction: "Real Person Fiction." Because that's basically what this novel is — a fictional biography of H.P. Lovecraft in which "the Old Gent" was queer as a three-dollar bill and wrote an erotic gay diary called "The Erotonomicon" in which he describes performing "Yog-Sothoth" and doing "Lesser Summonings" with young black boys on the beach. The metaphors are as subtle, cyclopean, and squamous as anything Lovecraft actually wrote.

If this were just something thrown up on, you'd go "Ewww" and laugh at what perverted imaginations fan fiction authors have. But Paul La Farge actually turns this into a metatextual mystery with literary layers upon layers. You see, The Erotonomicon may or may not be a fake. (Incidentally, the publishers seem to have gone to great lenths — or maybe the author is just having some fun, with a website by Black Hour Books purporting to market the "real" Erotonomicon. As far as I can tell, Black Hour Books does not actually exist.)


The novel begins with Marina Willett, a doctor whose African-American journalist husband disappeared while researching H.P. Lovecraft's life. This leads her on a journey through miles and decades, trying to uncover the mystery of Robert Barlow, a teenage fan whom Lovecraft apparently visited in Florida, and then L.C. Spinks, a Lovecraft scholar who claims to have known Lovecraft and owns a copy of The Erotonomicon. In the process we read accounts by Lovecraft, Barlow, and Spinks, inserting famous figures from the pulp era, ranging from William S. Burroughs to Isaac Asimov, early sci-fi fandom, and of course, closeted gay romps aplenty. All of which sets us up for the final questions at the end — was the Erotonomicon real? Did Robert Barlow fake his own death? Did Marina's husband find L.C. Spinks? And what happened to him?

It's a complex, layered story, mixing real history with fabrication. (Robert Barlow, for example, really was a teenage fan of Lovecraft's, while L.C. Spinks is fictional.) But alas, it did not really appeal to me, despite being a fan of (most) things Lovecraft and particularly meta stories about Lovecraft fandom. Unlike, say Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff or I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas, The Night Ocean isn't so much a mystery as a piece of literary performance art, well-rendered and well-researched but still reading like an over-written piece of Lovecraft RPF. A Lovecraft critique for the 21st century or a pretentious gay soap opera? It's a little of both.

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Tags: books, mystery, reviews

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