The horror writer H.P. Lovecraft is the center of this novel’s labyrinth.
“The Night Ocean”
by Paul La Farge
Penguin Press, 389 pp., $27
What could be more fun than a novel that turns itself inside out not once, not twice, but three or more times as it unravels the enigmas of identity?
Paul La Farge’s “The Night Ocean,” about an elusive chapter in the life of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, is just such a tale. In La Farge’s hands, revelation becomes hoax, suicide becomes “pseuicide” and, in an ever-expanding series of narrative curveballs, gay becomes straight becomes gay again.
Psychotherapist Marina Willett is our guide through this labyrinth. Her husband, Charlie, a Village Voice writer with a gift for “immersing himself in obscure and beautiful facts,” has vanished from a New England mental hospital. He’s presumed dead, though Marina has her doubts about that.
What drove Charlie crazy? His attempts to decipher what happened between the 43-year-old Lovecraft and gay teenage fan Robert Barlow when they spent two summers together at Barlow’s home in Florida in the 1930s.
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After Lovecraft’s death in 1937, Barlow, a real-life character, became a noted scholar of Aztec antiquity in the 1940s at Mexico City College. There, he indulged his homosexual desires more freely than in the U.S. Still, in 1951 when a student threatened to expose him, he killed himself.
The Lovecraft-Barlow story doesn’t end there — at least not in “The Night Ocean.” Marina tells us that in 1952 a Canadian editor named L.C. Spinks published a memoir, “The Erotonomicon,” in which Lovecraft supposedly recounted his heated affair with Barlow, using odd euphemisms (“Nether Gulfs,” “the Ebony Boxe” ) to refer to their sexual shenanigans.
“The Erotonomicon” drew the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee (“Homosexuality was, as everyone knew, a gateway to Communism”) and placed anyone connected with Lovecraft under suspicion. The twist: Spinks somehow wound up hobnobbing with right-wing luminaries like Roy Cohn, Walter Winchell, and William F. Buckley.
Charlie, researching a book on this tangled web of affairs, comes up with a theory that Barlow faked his suicide and became L.C. Spinks. When Charlie confronts him, Spinks is delighted to have been discovered and helps publicize Charlie’s book when it comes out — which is when things truly begin to unravel.
“The Night Ocean,” with its stories within stories, each contradicting the next, is like a Russian nesting doll on steroids. All of its characters are tantalizing presences on the page despite, or maybe because of, the uncertainties that plague them. La Farge’s prose is a continual pleasure, whether he’s cooking up outrageous deadpan quips for gentleman-outlaw William S. Burroughs (Barlow’s student in Mexico) or picturing a secondhand bookseller as “an old disconsolate Einstein of a man, unevenly poured into a purple cardigan sweater.”
At the heart of the book is the enigma of Lovecraft, a “problematic person” who, while presenting the image of New England propriety, was also the worst kind of bigot.
“The Night Ocean” leaves poor Charlie asking, “What does it mean for someone to be someone? … I mean, how does anyone know who they really are?”
Its dazzling intricacies add up to a heady masterpiece.