Review by Douglas Wynne.
It occurs to me that the books I get the most excited to tell people about are the ones full of secrets and surprises; stories that reveal their true nature slowly and in ways that would be spoiled by a plot summary type of review. I encountered that problem in reviewing A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, and I find myself in the same predicament with The Night Ocean by Paul Lafarge. When I picked the novel up to bring on vacation with me, I knew it would be a good fit for a review on the Lovecraft e-zine. After all, publisher describes it as “a novel of H.P. Lovecraft.” Fans will recognize the title as borrowed from a short story by R.H. Barlow and HPL, and both writers appear as characters in the nested stories within the novel.
I knew all of that going in. But I didn’t know much more, except that the book has an absolutely gorgeous cover. Was it straight historical fiction? Speculative fiction? Would there be elements of weird fiction? As it happens, not knowing what kind of book The Night Ocean is only added to the pleasure of reading it. There were places where I wondered if it would veer into the supernatural, and others where the richness of what is ultimately literary fiction is enhanced by how deftly Lafarge uses the devices of Lovecraft’s work as metaphors pointing toward larger themes.
The story begins with psychiatrist Marina Willett investigating the disappearance of her husband, Charlie, who is presumed dead by the police after he escaped from a psychiatric hospital in the Berkshires on a January night, hitched a ride to Lake Agawam, and left his clothes on the shore. Prior to his breakdown, Charlie had become obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft and had written a book about Lovecraft’s relationship with R.H. Barlow, which was in turn based on the Erotonomicon, a sexual diary of questionable provenance, apparently penned by Lovecraft and published posthumously by a Canadian fan named L.C. Spinks.
The Night Ocean may be the smartest fictional twist on Lovecraft we’ve seen yet. But it’s a difficult book to label. Beyond the brief premise above, all I’ll say about the plot and structure is that every time you think you know what you’re reading, the book changes focus in subtle ways while maintaining a continuity of ideas. It’s not a genre hopper in the sense of something like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (for one thing, the hints at speculative elements are much more subdued) but it does start out with the promise of a mystery before segueing through contemporary literary fiction to alternate history and back again.
This is a book about identity, storytelling, love, betrayal, hoaxes, and fandom. There are moments of suspense, dread, and sly humor. Ultimately, it coaxes empathy out of the reader for the most unlovable people with a sleight-of-hand that has you looking somewhere else, trying to parse fact from fiction while it works that greater magic. The overarching effect is a creeping postmodernism that reminded me more of Orson Wells than H.P. Lovecraft—particularly, of Wells’ pseudo documentary, F is for Fake. But, then again, it was HPL who famously said, “No weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax.” LaFarge may be more interested in provoking thought, unease, and empathy than terror, but he does so with more than enough care to keep you guessing how much of this he made up. Along the way, we are treated to glimpses of William S. Burroughs and Isaac Asimov, as well as a host of other writers and editors with walk on parts.
Early in the story, Marina says, “Nothing has led me to believe that people can change their deep selves; the best we can do is to fit our dispositions into the real world.” And yet, this is a story in which people do seem to change, to be transformed by deep longings and profound fears, all while somehow remaining fundamentally the same. In this way, Lafarge riffs on the transmigration of consciousness that Lovecraft played with in such stories as “The Thing on the Doorstep,” examining the device from a variety of angles, sometimes spiritual but more often psychological.
LaFarge also offers a meticulously researched glimpse into the weird fiction and SF community of 1930s New York. For modern readers all too familiar with the trolling and political infighting that continue to plague genre fiction in the Internet age (perhaps best exemplified by the Sad Puppies Hugo Awards fiasco), the past is prophecy. But where the novel touches on themes of racism and homophobia, it does so from often oblique angles, through stories within stories that read like autobiographies and which demonstrate both the redemptive and destructive powers of storytelling. The juxtaposition has a powerful cumulative effect.
The Night Ocean is a brave, protean, generous imaginative work. It kept me guessing right up to a perfectly poetic ending that I couldn’t help grinning at.
Review by Douglas Wynne.