The Night Ocean, by Paul La Farge

The Night Ocean, by Paul La Farge book coverGenre: Alternate History
Publisher: Penguin Press
Published: 2017
Reviewer Rating: five stars
Reviewer: David L. Felts

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I’m wasn’t sure how to classify this one. It’s fiction, and speculative, but it’s not fantastic speculation, if that makes any sense. I decided to go with alternate history; a story about a real person, wrapped in a fictional wrapper, with elements that may or may not be true. I true H.P. Lovecraft devotee might have a more informed opinion of the veracity of La Farge’s tale….

The Night Ocean, by Paul La Farge, is a multi-viewpoint book about H.P. Lovecraft, his teen-age friend Robert Barlow, and a supposed diary Lovecraft kept that detailed the time they spent together. Lovecraft died of cancer in 1937 at the age of 46, a few years after he met with Robert Barlow in person. At the time of his death, his work wasn’t nearly as popular as it is today.

The Night Ocean takes a look at Barlow’s role in Lovecraft’s life. When Barlow was 13, he wrote a letter to Lovecraft. The engendered a correspondence he and Lovecraft enjoyed until Lovecraft’s death. In 1934, when Barlow was 16, and Lovecraft traveled to Florida to visit Barlow in person. Lovecraft stayed with Barlow and his family for two months. Barlow also later visited Lovecraft in Providence. They also collaborated on several stories and exchanged letters until Lovecraft’s death.

There is, however, no record of what happened during those visits. One might speculate however, as it seems odd that a 40 year-old man would have such a familiar relationship with a teenager and in later years Lovecraft’s sexual orientation was called into question. But speculation is not truth, and that’s the basis of The Night Ocean. Upon Lovecraft’s death, Barlow was appointed Lovecraft’s literary executor. Odd, right?

The Night Ocean also happens to be the title of a story Lovecraft helped Barlow with, a story about a man vacationing at an isolated beach house and bothered by the uneasy feeling that there was something sinister out there, under the waves lurking in the deep. Freud anyone? Even more so considering the revulsion with which homosexuality was viewed with at the time.

The book starts by introducing Marina Willett, a psychiatrist married to Charlie, a journalist. Charlie is apparently dead of suicide, having supposedly drowned himself in a lake. His clothes were discovered on the shore, but no body was found. Marina, as might be expected, vacillates between acceptance and the belief that her husband faked his death.

Charlie had written a book on H.P. Lovecraft. While researching, he came upon the Erotonomicon, a supposed secret diary of H.P. Lovecraft’s sex life and relationship with Barlow. The Erotonomicon has already been exposed as fake, and Charlie tracked down the person who supposedly wrote it, one L.C. Spinks. But Charlie doubts Spinks is the truth author. In fact, Charlie he has developed the theory the true author is none other than Barlow, who supposedly committed suicide in 1951.

Or did he?

Charlie follows a trail to Canada, meets with Spinks and gets what he thinks is the real story of what happened between Barlow and Lovecraft. The result is The Book of the Law of Love, which Charlie sells for publication for the tidy sum of $200,000. Once The Law of the Book of Love gets published, Charlie finds himself a minor celebrity of sorts, at least until things start to unwind. Charlie, it seems, was the victim of a hoax. The stresss takes its toll, and not too long later, his clothes are found on the the shore of a lake, and Charlie is seen no more.

Marina, tortured by uncertainly over Charlie’s fate and determined to see the story through, travels to Canada to meet with Spinks. Although she learns more than she hoped, she is still left without resolution, and forced to make her own conclusions from the incomplete and confusing information she has.

Overall, the story has 5 narrators: Lovecraft, Barlow, Charlie, Marina, and Spinks. Each one has a distinct voice and a unique story, and each one adds pieces to the puzzle, although the whole thing never gets finished.

The writing here is top notch and a genuine pleasure. Full disclosure: I’ve never read any Lovecraft (and this novel doesn’t make me want to) but The Night Ocean is a treat no matter if you’re a Lovecraft fan or not.

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