Book Review: The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Penguin Press (March 7, 2017)
Length: 400 pages
The Night Ocean is not my usual genre, I confess, but its subject matter was simply too enticing to resist. While it’s true that I’ve always been drawn to books inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps just as interesting—if not more so—are the stories about the man himself. A pioneer of weird fiction, his lasting influence on the horror genre can be seen all around us, and yet, there is also a darker side to his legacy. In life, Lovecraft held some repugnant views, and in many fandom circles his racism and bigotry are still discussed almost as much as his work today. Still, love him or hate him, there appears to be a fascination with HPL’s work and personal life which cannot be denied.
Perhaps I should back up a bit, though. While indeed The Night Ocean explores the life of Lovecraft, it does it in a most unconventional and bizarre manner (which I’ll talk more about later), weaving fiction and history into a far-reaching chronicle that also ties in the lives of many other characters. Some of these names will even be familiar to Lovecraft and Horror/SFF aficionados, but first we begin this story with the tragedy of Dr. Marina Willett and her husband Charlie.
It all started with The Erotonomicon. Said to be the erotic diary of H.P. Lovecraft but later claimed to be a hoax, almost all copies are said to be destroyed back in the 50s, but somehow Charlie manages to track one down. As a life-long speculative fiction fan and a writer by trade, Charlie wants to make his next book an investigative piece about the diary, a decision that ends up plunging him into an all-consuming obsession with Lovecraft, much to Marina’s dismay. At the heart of Charlie’s project is a particular entry written in The Erotonomicon about a summer in 1934 involving Lovecraft and his friend Robert Barlow, a gay sixteen-year-old fan with whom the author stayed for a number of weeks while on a visit to Florida. Later known as the author and anthropologist R.H. Barlow, Robert also ended up collaborating with Lovecraft on several stories including “The Night Ocean”, which this book is named for.
Determined to find out the truth about Lovecraft and Barlow’s relationship, Charlie sets out on a continent-spanning journey to find out everything he can about what really happened between the two men that summer in Florida. However, Charlie’s obsession ultimately leads him to his downfall, and after suffering depression and anxiety, he checks himself into a hospital at the urging of his wife. Not long after that, he escapes into the wilderness and disappears without a trace. The note he left made it pretty clear to everyone that Charlie had planned and carried out his suicide, but Marina finds this difficult to accept. Holding on to the belief that her husband is still alive, she retraces his steps for the last two years, going to the places he visited and talking to the people he interviewed for his book, all in the hopes that it will shed some light on where she might find Charlie.
Quite frankly, describing the story any more than this would be a downright nightmare because I would be at an absolute loss as to how to keep going. The Night Ocean is one strange book, difficult to summarize and classify since it is made up of so many perspectives and interconnecting parts. The overall concept behind the novel is certainly ambitious and ingenious, but the way the story is presented will probably make it seem unfocused. Even though the entire book is told through Marina’s eyes, I would say the first half of the book is about Charlie—but also not—while the second half is about Marina—and yet also not. Yes, I’m aware of how confusing this sounds, but really at the heart of both threads is a man named L.C. Spinks, the publisher of The Erotonomicon. Is the diary really a hoax? Or if there’s some truth to it, then which parts of it are real and which parts are completely fabricated? The Night Ocean is an intricately woven web of fact and fiction, combining Paul La Farge’s rich imagination with the results of what must have been hours upon hours of painstaking research on his part.
And how does H.P. Lovecraft play into all this, you ask? Well, last summer I read and really enjoyed a novel called I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas, and even though it and The Night Ocean could not be any more different in tone and style, I still found it impossible not to draw parallels between these two books. Perhaps it is because they are both “Lovecraftian fiction” in the atypical sense; rather than playing directly off of HPL’s large body of works and the mythos he had created, they instead took an almost meta-fiction approach, both narratives coming up with a unique way to explore the author’s life and work through the lens of fandom. After all, one can hardly provide a full picture of Lovecraft’s legacy without recognizing the activities and creations of his highly dedicated fans, a cult following which has been growing since the 40s and 50s—fanzines, conventions, internet clubs and groups, etc. The Night Ocean is a book of many layers and components, and yes, there are parts of the story which deal with the nature of the fan community, presenting both its wonderful and ugly sides.
All told, I had a shockingly good time with this book. Because of its tangled nature, I doubt it going to be for everyone, but still, I highly recommend it if the description interests you. While I found the author’s writing style somewhat quirky and disjointed, I nevertheless managed to get into the rhythm of the story quickly, becoming mesmerized by extraordinary lives of these characters. There’s a lot of pain and heartbreak within these pages, but also a surprising amount of tenderness and beauty that I had not expected to find in a book featuring Lovecraft as a key figure. And even though there’s a lot of ambiguity in the story—a fact that often vexes me—in this case, I believe it might actually add to the book’s mystique.
At once frustrating and rewarding, The Night Ocean is alternate history on a completely new and innovative level. Easily one of the more clever, intense, and haunting books I’ve read so far this year, and its ending will likely stay with me for a long, long time.