Part literary detective story, part Gothic tale, and part fictional biography, Paul La Farge’s enthralling novel The Night Ocean is composed of the formal hybrids and convolutions shared by the best monster narratives. The chief monster of The Night Ocean is no fantasy, but a real historical figure, H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937), the cult master of the weird who fathered a menagerie of horrific creatures, the most famous of which is the tentacled, death-cult-promoting Cthulhu. La Farge’s engagement with Lovecraft is an attempt to bring to light the darkest aspects of our past, the horror of American racial history encoded in the seductions of the pulp grotesque.
The Night Ocean describes the 21st-century African American writer Charlie Willett’s quest for the lost manuscript of The Erotonomicon, a book he is convinced Lovecraft wrote, in an obscure 18th-century English dialect, to detail his sexual exploits. After Charlie’s research takes a bad turn, he checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, overwhelmed by the fog of research, discovery, and fabrication that surrounds Lovecraft’s writing. The novel is narrated by Charlie’s wife, Marina, a psychologist who seeks to discover what happened to her husband following his mysterious disappearance from the hospital. Although Charlie has supposedly committed suicide, Marina is convinced that he is still alive, and La Farge’s narrative, a pastiche of interviews, personal accounts, images, and documents, maps her attempts to discover the truth about him—and, consequently, about Lovecraft as well.
Before his disappearance, Charlie described his research as an obsessive, yet controlled, enterprise:
“The more I look, the more his [Lovecraft’s] story unravels,” he said, “and the more it unravels, the more I doubt my sanity … It’s like the lengths some people will go to, to fill in a blank spot. Then I say, whew, glad I know where reality stops and fantasy begins, and I’m out.”
But as Charlie’s experience and our own as readers demonstrate, distinctions between truth and fiction can become increasingly difficult to make, and, by the end of the narrative, getting “out” is no longer possible. Marina sums up Lovecraft’s 1927 novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, as “a parable on the perils of research,” a description that could be applied to La Farge’s text. But The Night Ocean is more than just a cautionary tale. It forces us to experience the consequences of refusing the “death of the author,” of trying to resuscitate him through his real (or, in some cases, invented) works. This enterprise becomes particularly thorny when it ends up unleashing the author’s dangerous worldview.
Why Lovecraft? The historical Lovecraft was an eccentric and a recluse whose life was largely confined to Providence, Rhode Island; having lived with his mother until she was committed to the same mental institution where his father spent his final days, he was married briefly, and after a short spell in New York returned to Providence for good. The stories and novels he wrote throughout his life, many of them published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, made him famous posthumously, and with a vengeance. Starting in the 1940s, he began to be recognized as a Gothic writer in the tradition of Poe, and his oeuvre attracted a fan base of readers who craved the weird and grotesque. Fan fiction inspired by his tales and “real person fiction” that featured Lovecraft himself as a character, of which The Night Ocean is the latest example, proliferated. La Farge parodies this fandom in his novel when he takes us to a horror convention whose attendees don “I ♥ Cthulhu” pins and drink “Last Call of Cthulhu” cocktails (“gin, Chartreuse, Lillet, and lime, served up with an absinthe rinse”). Of late, there has been a resurgence of interest in Lovecraft, marked by an increase in literary and critical engagements with him and his writings. Mac Carter’s comic The Strange Adventures of H. P. Lovecraft, Volume I (2010), Jacqueline Baker’s novel The Broken Hours (2014), and Carl H. Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s scholarly anthology, The Age of Lovecraft (2016), are just a few recent interventions in the Lovecraftian universe.
The return of Lovecraft has been marked above all by a confrontation with his racism, blatant in a number of his writings, not least his poem “On the Creation of Niggers” (1912). In 2015, the World Fantasy Awards responded to this longstanding criticism by ceasing to grant its winners the bust of Lovecraft that had been affectionately known as the “Howie.” As the Afro-Caribbean writer Phenderson Djèlí Clark puts it, “It’s always perplexing to watch the gymnastics of mental obfuscation that occur as fans of Lovecraft attempt to rationalize his racism.” Clark contends that this racism needs to be acknowledged, even in light (or especially because) of Lovecraft’s talents as a fantasy writer: “He is without doubt one of the ‘greats,’ a giant whose influence cuts across varied genres of speculative fiction. … But I ain’t sugar-coating who and what he was. … Lovecraft spoke loud and clear. If you can’t hear him, you’re just not listening.”1
China Miéville, who considers Lovecraft an important influence on his own speculative fiction, also argues against dismissing the author’s racism as just another aspect of his posthumanist perspective. He contends instead that Lovecraft’s racism may be one source of his significance. Rather than exonerating or shunning Lovecraft’s work, Miéville writes, we need “to try to metabolize it and understand and even appreciate the power of the text. … This work is spun from utterly toxic aspects of modernity and therefore it may illuminate them in certain powerful ways, and maybe give you a sense of the kind of imbrication of these kinds of toxic ideologies with the nature of everyday life.”2
The Night Ocean is one such metabolization. The fact that the character Charlie is African American is used throughout the novel to remind us of the significance of a researcher’s subject position with respect to his or her material. After meeting S. T. Joshi, a South Asian biographer of Lovecraft (a real scholar La Farge has imported into his text), Charlie “made a crack about how funny it was that two brown dudes should have ended up writing about H. P. Lovecraft, which Joshi didn’t even smile at.” Charlie’s racial identity affects every part of his research, coloring his uncomfortable awareness that he is “a black man upstairs in someone else’s house” when he searches for evidence. When his authorial reputation fails, his race also makes him vulnerable to allegations that he is like Jayson Blair, the African American journalist who resigned from the New York Times in 2003 following accusations of plagiarism and invention.
The further we delve into La Farge’s novel, the more we realize that racism is only one of the whirlwind of issues that burst out of Charlie and Marina’s research. Others are Lovecraft’s allegedly queer sexuality, the question of sole authorship versus collaborative work, the influence of Gothic fiction on the young, and the relationship between personal trauma and the search for truth. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the array of topics that explode from almost every page of the novel. But, as I read the book, my sense of disorientation was combined with awe at how La Farge weaves together multiple lives and questions, drawing readers into the maelstrom of truths and lies to which his characters succumb.
The Night Ocean becomes even more dizzying when we realize that several of its characters, in addition to Lovecraft himself, are historical figures. These include the scholar S. T. Joshi; Robert Barlow, an author and anthropologist who collaborated with Lovecraft, and may have slept with him as a teenager; the Beat celebrity William S. Burroughs; the science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin; and the poet Samuel Loveman, to name only a few. The magnitude of real persons populating this fictional novel presents an extreme version of the “real person fiction” (RPF) that David Simmons argues has been central to Lovecraft’s afterlife. Starting with Robert Bloch’s 1935 story “The Shambler from the Stars,” for which the author obtained Lovecraft’s written permission “to portray, murder, annihilate, disintegrate, transfigure, metamorphose, or otherwise manhandle” him, numerous fictions have featured Lovecraft as a character, sometimes as an entity who interacts with his own fictional creations. Simmons further argues that such narratives tell us “that we should no longer think of Lovecraft’s persona as relating to the ‘real’ Lovecraft, or as a character in the traditional sense; instead, it is now more appropriate to see ‘Lovecraft’ as a fictional character with his own autonomy.”3 By crafting a parallel universe composed of Lovecraft’s real acquaintances and readers, La Farge turns literary history itself into a fiction.
La Farge had already blurred the boundaries of fiction and history in his 2001 novel, Haussmann, or the Distinction, which weaves a fantasy around the 19th-century French urban planner Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. The Night Ocean offers a fresh perspective on this approach, due as much to its form and scope as to the moment of its release. It shows us that research fueled by fandom and admiration can unearth horrors that are far from fictional, but that—in Miéville’s terminology—we may need to metabolize nonetheless. This process, the novel suggests, involves a constant struggle with alternative facts and authentic fictions; while these distinctions may not always be resolved, the effort to disentangle them matters. With inflated inauguration crowd sizes, Muslim bans that are supposedly not bans, and imagined terrorist massacres, we have entered an era in which differentiating truths from lies, and trying to prevent the horrors of the past from intruding into the present, will be a daily practice. The Night Ocean, a compelling novel in its own right, requires us to exercise our critical readership as we face the current political administration, which may be the most Lovecraftian of them all.
- Phenderson Djèlí Clark, “HP Lovecraft’s Madness,” May 3, 2013. ↩
- Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, “Afterword: An Interview with China Miéville,” The Age of Lovecraft, edited by Carl H. Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), p. 241. ↩
- David Simmons, “H. P. Lovecraft and Real Person Fiction: The Pulp Author as Subcultural Avatar,” in ibid., pp. 149–165. ↩