All You Need Is Lovecraft

The Night Ocean BY Paul La Farge. Penguin Press . . .

The cover of The Night Ocean

Like many authors—Charles Bukowski, Kathy Acker, Jack Kerouac, Ayn Rand, Philip K. Dick, to name a few—who have attracted cultish followings, H. P. Lovecraft has a biography that feels essential to and inextricable from his work's singular vision. In Lovecraft's case that biography is almost unbelievably morbid. He was born in 1890 to parents who both died in mental asylums. Lovecraft himself was a sickly child and lifelong loner. Unheralded at his death at the age of forty-six in 1937, the Providence native published chiefly in small magazines and gained eventual recognition due to the efforts of an early group of fans known as the "Lovecraft Circle." In his fiction, he extended Poe's understanding of psychosis as a portal to the supernatural, creating a mythology all his own that fed off and articulated a dire pessimism. If you've overheard guttural emanations traded by a pair of Lovecraftians as they dispute the correct pronunciation of the cosmic entity "Cthulhu," you can testify to the fealty this world-building inspires. It is just that ardency between reader, writer, and story that defines cult authors, rather than the size of their audience.

The Night Ocean, Paul La Farge's intricately constructed novel about an apocryphal Lovecraft text, explores this passion binding us to stories and storytellers. It's not the first time the author has forayed into metafictional territory. His somewhat unclassifiable 2005 book, The Facts of Winter, purported to be a collection of translated dream-poems by the fictitious French author Paul Poissel. In addition to the prose poems (presented in both French and English), there is a lengthy afterword that recounts La Farge's own scholarly detective work tracking down this bogus manuscript. The entire project—down to the acknowledgments and jacket copy—is presented with only the slightest wink, so it's no surprise that many readers believed Poissel to be real. Under another guise, Poissel first appeared in La Farge's earlier novel Haussmann, or the Distinction (2001) as the author of a revelatory manuscript about the famed Parisian architect that has been translated, again, by a character named Paul La Farge. The playful self-reflexiveness and fascination with the questionable stability of literary expression that mark these two efforts are further extended in The Night Ocean. This time a secret notebook titled the Erotonomicon, a diary detailing Lovecraft's sex life, in particular his affair with a young male fan, provides the central animating conceit. Charlie Willett, aVillage Voice reporter with a passion for conspiracies, comes across the volume in 2006.

By freely mixing historical facts and fictional incidents, La Farge establishes an ever-shifting narrative ground, urging the reader to consider the tricky boundaries between the real and the imaginary. The circumstances surrounding Lovecraft and Robert H. Barlow, the fan and would-be writer he befriended in the 1930s, serve as the starting point for such energetic fabulation and impersonation that the temptation to fact-check is difficult to resist. Yet sorting out the improbabilities and possible inaccuracies in a novel, La Farge implicitly asserts, is a fool's errand. Amplifying this tension between fact and fiction is the mise en abyme structure. Charlie's wife, Marina, serves as the narrator. She's a Manhattan psychotherapist who is compelled by both her heart and professional disposition to explain why her husband has disappeared. Having fled a Massachusetts psychiatric hospital, he apparently drowned himself in a nearby lake. We learn of his obsession with "obscure and beautiful facts," as well as that, "for Charlie, there was no limit." His Barlow research uncovers the Erotonomicon, which initiates his descent into a rabbit hole of deceptions. While this journey is ostensibly Charlie's, he is, in fact, barely present. Instead, Marina's framing tale contains various other lengthy tales that steer us far from this couple, and even quite far from Lovecraft.

Early on Marina quotes "extensively" from Lovecraft's diary, and these excerpts constitute a stylistic tour de force. La Farge mimics to the point of comic over-enrichment the horror writer's archaic usages and syntax, as well as his neologistic verve, which is most entertainingly applied to coded names for sex acts. Borrowing Lovecraft's own mytho-cosmic vocabulary, La Farge repurposes the lingo to describe masturbation: "Perform'd 3 times tonight ye YOGGE-SOTHOTHE ritual, ceasing onlie when my Forces were entirely us'd." Oral sex is the "Ablo ritual," and we can guess what it means to have "probed ye Outer Spheres" with "magickall Ease." As happens with most diaries in fiction, this one is read by the person it's about and a suicide attempt ensues. A later entry gives the reason: Lovecraft deemed a short story Barlow had written to be "mediocre." The two eventually collaborate on a story, "The Night Ocean," which Marina synopsizes; it's about an artist who visits a beach where the "strangely mangled bodies" of otherwise strong swimmers wash ashore and where late one night he espies a mysterious figure carrying what looks to be a man out to sea. Her gloss—"We will vanish from the Earth, the artist says, but the ocean will be around forever"—sets a melancholy if not despairing tone that deepens the import of the literary devices.

The foremost of these is the Erotonomicon itself. Published in 1952 as a discovery by L. C. Spinks, a Canadian appliance repairman and Lovecraft devotee, it is soon revealed to be a hoax (making La Farge's rendering of it a fake of a fake). Still, the false revelations about the author spark improbable media attention and widespread condemnation of homosexuality and its connection to pulp fiction as an element of creeping communism. In the book's present, Charlie becomes convinced that the author of the diary is Barlow. His interview with Barlow (rumored to be dead but in fact still alive) is another nesting-doll narrative: La Farge blends fact and fiction to tell of Barlow's exile from the community of Lovecraftians over accusations of mishandled manuscripts, his graduate work at Berkeley with Alfred Kroeber, and his meeting with William S. Burroughs. Under threat of exposure as a homosexual in Mexico City, Barlow claims to have faked his own death and fled to a small Canadian town, adopted the guise of an appliance repairman, and authored the diary. But wait . . . this interview is superseded by Marina's interview with Spinks, who impersonated Barlow to Charlie (Charlie's volume, The Book of the Law of Love, about Lovecraft and Barlow, had become a sensation and then a scandal among Lovecraftians when the deception was revealed). After her husband's apparent demise, she journeys to Parry Sound to record Spinks's yarn, and it, too, is a doozy, one that meanders through leftist politics among bibliophiles in New York in the '30s, the Canadian Army, prewar Budapest, Belsen, heroin addiction, and a failed marriage to a concentration-camp survivor. Yet all this is proven to be an elaborate lie when she visits his study and sees the books that furnished the details to create his autobiography. So deceit is heaped upon deceit, mask set upon mask. "I wanted to believe Spinks," Marina says after listening to him. "And that, I thought, was the danger."

La Farge dramatizes this desire by portraying a round-robin of storytellers, each of whom seeks something transformative from the story they are told or tell. Marina tells us a story she hopes will enable her to understand Charlie; Charlie pursues a barely believable tale to redeem his journalistic career, and Spinks gives him one; Spinks longs for a life more vivid than his own, so he becomes a serial spinner of falsehoods—or, under different circumstances, a novelist. Lovecraft, the real Lovecraft, no doubt wished to externalize the demons and family madness that haunted him, and La Farge's choice of the Providence author and his faithful audience is apt. Lovecraft's readers enter not merely stories but encompassing worlds. Still, allegiance can be difficult to maintain—a dyed-in-the-wool racist, Lovecraft openly disdained immigrants and nonwhites in his writings. La Farge elegantly subverts this fact to allow his fictive author liaisons with African American boys, even as Lovecraft vents, "It is not good for a proud, light-skinned Nordic to be cast away alone amongst squat, squint-eyed jabberers with coarse ways & alien emotions." This notion of a cult of unlovable loves is given literal representation and contemporary meaning by the Erotonomicon's descriptions of a closet in Barlow's Florida home containing his collection of fantasy fiction. In this clandestine locale, the two repair for the "Ablo ritual" and bookish talk, thus joining the forbidden delights of pulp fiction and same-sex relations.

At times the intensity of the reader-writer relationship—one that enlivens nearly every page of The Night Ocean—slackens due to the ever-compounding plot complexities. Digressions and narrative feints, slyly instructive though they be, sometimes enervate the characters' emotional charge. It is Spinks giving voice to his created Barlow when that character tells Charlie how much he wishes he could "have found a way to stay in the world of writers and readers, which was, in the end, the only world he had ever loved." Despite the satisfyingly smart ploy of pulling the rug out from under this impersonation, there's real disappointment when Barlow is re-consigned to his grave.

But such moments offer readers the opportunity to examine our undeniably strong connection to this thing called a character, a kinship no less vivid because that "person" is mere words on a page. Marina quotes Charlie speculating about what he believed to be Barlow/Spinks's reason for writing the Erotonomicon: "I wonder if stories are our way of taking these imperfect humans we're stuck with on Earth, and making them into people who love us, and whom we can love in return." He sought to make Lovecraft, "for all his flaws," into someone "who was capable of love." That the vehicle for this achingly human wish is an elaborate, beguiling lie isn't lost on La Farge; his compassionate, intellectually adroit novel hinges on this paradox. With The Night Ocean, La Farge continues to press adventurously into the complicated moral terrain around the making of art and the provisional nature of truth. His sure-handed world-building around these ideas and the empathy that undergirds that vision suggest a circle of La Fargeans will someday soon emerge.

Albert Mobilio's book of short fiction Games and Stunts will be published by Black Square Editions.