Weaving history and fiction into a dark story of our tenuous grip on reality
“Life is a hideous thing,” wrote H.P. Lovecraft, “and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemonical hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.” Though Lovecraft’s oeuvre is replete with ghastly monsters and terrifying perversions of nature, perhaps his scariest contribution to the horror and fantasy genres is the idea that some truths can be so horrific they can drive a person insane.
In “The Night Ocean,” author Paul Le Farge blends historical fact and fiction revolving around Lovecraft to explore how malleable the truth can be. In a dizzying series of overlapping narratives, leaping back and forth in time, Le Farge creates a fascinating, labyrinthine story in which certainty is always just out of reach.
The story begins with Marina Willett, a New York psychologist searching for her missing husband, Charlie. Though Charlie is presumed dead after escaping from a psychiatric hospital in the Berkshires, Marina suspects that he may have staged his own drowning to escape the fallout from the revelation that his blockbuster book about H.P. Lovecraft was mistakenly based on a fraudulent diary written by a hoaxer named L.C. Spinks.
The diary (dubbed the “Erotonomicon”) chronicles a sexual relationship between Lovecraft and Robert Barlow, a 16-year-old fan whom the 43-year-old Lovecraft visited and lived with for more than two months in the spring of 1936. This real-life visitation has been the source of much speculation among the Lovecraft faithful; the two collaborated on stories (including one titled “The Night Ocean”), and Lovecraft made Barlow the executor of his literary estate upon his death in 1937. Barlow would go on to become a renowned anthropologist and professor, but committed suicide at the age of 32 when a student of his threatened to expose his homosexuality.
Or did he? In a flashback we learn that Charlie didn’t think so. He came to believe that Spinks actually was Barlow and that “Erotonomicon’’ was not a forgery, but in fact a true account of a secret romance that took place between the young fan and his literary idol. He became obsessed with corroborating Spinks’s claims and was cool to Marina’s cautions against credulousness. “Sometimes,” he told Marina, “when you get deep enough into someone’s head, you can kind of see things. It’s like you become them and you’re seeing the world through their eyes.”
Through Marina’s investigation, La Farge treats readers to two equally compelling and dubious stories, each told by the enigmatic Spinks. The first is a fictional reimagining of Barlow’s years in Mexico, where he taught anthropology, sparred with his student William S. Burroughs, and sought the truth about indigenous history. “[B]ut,” writes Le Farge, “wherever he looked, he found a false floor of facts over a yawning basement of legend, the floor of which was also false.” It is this story, so rich in detail and emotion, that convinced Charlie that Spinks is really Barlow.
The second story is one that Spinks tells Marina, supposedly the true story of his life and why he sought to impersonate Barlow. Here, La Farge immerses readers in the cliquey world of 1930s science fiction fandom, as Spinks falls in with a real-life coterie of young, left-wing weird fiction fans known as the Futurians, whose ranks included future stars of the genre like Isaac Asimov, Donald Wollheim, and Frederick Pohl.
La Farge weaves his own story so seamlessly into history that it can be difficult, at times, to discern what’s based in truth and what isn’t. At one point, Marina says of Spinks that “he demonstrated that with great love and hard work and enormous attention to detail it was possible to bring a human being back to life.” The same could be said for La Farge, who manages to inspire great sympathy for his characters — even when we aren’t sure we should believe what they’re saying.
“The Night Ocean” doesn’t contrive to tie up all its loose ends by the end of the story. Marina relates her investigation to “what Freud called the navel of the dream, the place where all the lines of meaning the analyst has so carefully traced through the patient’s life vanish into the unknown.” It’s a reminder that in spite of our best efforts, sometimes the truth really is beyond our comprehension.
THE NIGHT OCEAN
By Paul La Farge
Penguin Press. 400 pp., $27