Review by Reber Clark
February 24, 2017
“Wonder had gone away, and he had forgotten that all life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other.” – H. P. Lovecraft, The Silver Key
“She had studied the universe all her life, but had overlooked its clearest message: For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” – Carl Sagan, Contact
What an infuriating book. And a lovely one. What a frustrating, ugly, poignant, fantastic, wildly crazy, nutso bag-of-shit fantasy and wonderful piece of writing this is. For any Lovecraft aficionado this will almost certainly be an exhilarating, exasperating and practically psychotic ride into the minds and worlds of Lovecraft, R. H. Barlow, William S. Burroughs, a cast of hundreds (including Ambrose Bierce, Donald Wollheim, Isaac Asimov, Samuel Loveman – the list goes on and on…) and even S. T. Joshi!
How to write a review of this book without giving anything away has proven to be a very difficult task. If you, dear reader, are someone who appreciates Lovecraft’s work and knows anything (or think you know anything) about the man himself buckle your seatbelt and get ready for a sociopathic romp into a (possibly) alternate universe of deception, truth, speculation, fact, and altogether prejudice-shaking exposure.
I’ve known a few sociopaths in my day and been fairly deeply and toxically involved with one or two and I gotta tell ya this book grabs your imagination and holds on with sociopathic techniques, lies, and truths so deftly presented that if while I was reading it the sun came up out of the west and started to sing “Danny Boy” in Hebrew while frying bacon with Santa Claus I’d completely buy it.
I was suspicious going in. I mean the title of the book is The Night Ocean which is the title of a story by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft and although titles are not copyrightable I thought “Oh, come on!”
I had no idea who the author Paul La Farge was and am naturally suspicious of anyone who dares to mess with MY Lovecraft (yes, I am asserting my entitled prig attitude of owning the Old Gent of Providence. Pitiful, I know). It took a few years for me to trust S. T. Joshi, whom I now consider the foremost scholar of Lovecraft and have come to appreciate his forthright and rigorous studies of Lovecraft’s life. I will not divulge what his appearance in Mr. La Farge’s novel does for the narrative but, thank Azathoth, he does briefly appear and wields some powerful magic.
From the back cover: “Marina Willett, MD has a problem. Her husband, Charlie, has become obsessed with the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, in particular with one episode in Lovecraft’s life: In the summer of 1934 the ‘old gent’ lived for two months with a young fan named Robert Barlow and his family in central Florida. What were the two of them up to? Were they friends or something more? Just when Charlie thinks he’s solved the puzzle a scandal erupts and he disappears. The police say it’s suicide but Marina doesn’t believe them.”
Author Peter Straub provided a blurb for the back cover of the pre-publication copy I received and I think it sums the book up well, “Wonderful…A whole damned hustling heartbroken double-talking meaning-haunted world it is a privilege to enter.” I agree wholeheartedly.
Also from the back cover: “A historical tour de force, The Night Ocean is about love and deception; it’s about the way stories earn our trust, and betray it.” Another sentence perfectly getting at what the book is about. I could not write a better one.
The book is organized into sections titled after Lovecraft’s chapter headings in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and in fact cites a quote from that tale in the dedication pages: “I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you cannot put downe.”
The first section is entitled A Result and a Prologue, the following section titles are An Antecedent and a Horror, A Search and an Evocation, A Mutation and a Madness, A Nightmare and a Cataclysm, and concluding with The Navel of the Dream (which is from Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, not HPL). This gives the book a nice formal structure that nags and titillates the Lovecraft fan that I am.
There are footnotes scattered here and there – some informative, or expanding on information but many, I think, are there to fool the eye into buying that what we are reading is pedantic or scholarly. Ever since completing Moby Dick (just within the past few years, sadly) I have assiduously read every single damned footnote that has crossed my path but there were many years where I would skip them – opting to come back later in succeeding reads, which I never did. So – an effective technique for imparting the impression of truth and / or research that lends authenticity. Fun stuff and I love it.
I’m not sure if one is not a fan of HPL if one will be as affected as I was by this monster of a wonderful assault on and celebration of one’s impression of the man. Many casual readers may have indifferent reactions to the surface of what is happening. With the recent general acceptance by HPL by the literati - he’s actually being widely taught now and being published by “respectable” publishers (gasp! Something many of us have fought for over the years) – this is the perfect time for this book which challenges and explores and revels in all of our judgments and built up imaginings about the man and his times and his friends and acquaintances, his sex life and marriage and prejudices etc., etc., etc. Mr. La Farge and his publishers have picked the ideal time in history to release this book. They are to be commended, although there were times during this journey that were so enraging that I wanted to burn the whole fucking works to the god damned ground. I found out that that is part of the fun.
What a great book. If you are a fan of Howard Phillips Lovecraft and his writing and have delved a bit more deeply into his life than a casual reader might then this book will almost certainly take you on a ride you will not easily forget. Highly recommended but be prepared.