A Mystery Starring H.P. Lovecraft
“The nice thing about reading from the beginning of a book is that you don’t have to explain anything,” the novelist Paul Lafarge told the crowd gathered in the Franklin living room last Wednesday night. It was the first literature evening of the spring term, and LaFarge was reading from an early copy of his new novel The Night Ocean, which wouldn’t be officially published until this week.
The first chapters of the novel open with a melancholy account of Charlie and Marina, a husband and wife duo whose relationship and marriage has always been convenient but not quite balanced—and equally, not quite easy. Charlie’s Ambien overdose is enough for Marina, a psychiatrist, to ship him off to a mental institution, where soon after, he takes his life—or so the police believe.
The description of the couple’s phone conversations prior to Charlie vanishing are humorous, yet weighted. The essence of a troubled marriage but a sweet and caring friendship is delicately rendered. “What Charlie needed was not to make a new world, but to learn to live in the one that exists,” Marina reflects, thinking of Charlie’s excitement at the therapy sessions in which he was learning to construct a new and better reality for himself.
After Charlie’s disappearance, Marina is drawn to pursue her late husband’s obsession: the life of the great early 20th century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Charlie had been drawn to a specific chapter in the author’s biography—the summer of 1934, when Lovecraft spent two months living with a gay teenage follower, Robert Barlow. (An episode that has long puzzled Lovecraft scholars and fans of the writer.)
The novel is driven by questions without answers as it swaps perspectives between Marina, a very down-trodden Barlow, and an amiable appliance salesman named L.C Spinks. What were the unlikely pair doing together? Was it a paternal writerly friendship, or something more? Just when Charlie is on the brink of discovering the answers, he disappears. The police chalk it up to suicide. Marina Willett, M.D., is not so convinced.
The Night Ocean offers a rich literary history and zooms in on the lives of Lovecraft, the most influential American horror writer after Edgar Allan Poe, whose work continues to be revered (even as his racist views have been uncovered); Barlow, a scholar and professor of Mexican culture who killed himself after being blackmailed by a student for his homosexuality; that student, the future Beat writer William S. Burroughs; and L.C. Spinks, a Canadian appliance salesman and science-fiction fan—who has a surprisingly large role in the story as he divulges an intimate knowledge of Lovecraft himself.
The Night Ocean has already been heralded by Amazon, the BBC, Vulture, and The Chicago Review of Books as one of the best books of March 2017. The Washington Post depicted it as “a booby-trapped doozy of a book that’s as challenging and confounding as one of the many-tentacled alien beings in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.”
Paul LaFarge is the author of three other novels: The Artist of the Missing (FSG, 1999), Haussmann, or the Distinction (FSG, 2001), and Luminous Airplanes (FSG, 2011); and a book of imaginary dreams, The Facts of Winter (McSweeney's Books, 2005). He is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Bard Fiction Prize, and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Last but not least, LaFarge made an appearance at our very own Bennington College to teach a horror fiction class!
As its description claims, The Night Ocean is about “love and deception--about the way that stories earn our trust, and betray it.”