The Case of H.P. Lovecraft: Paul La Farge on “The Night Ocean”

“My husband, Charlie Willet, disappeared from a psychiatric hospital in the Berkshires on January 7, 2012.” The sentence that opens Paul La Farge’s bewitching, book-haunted new novel The Night Ocean hints at the sibling genres of horror and mystery, both of which lend their DNA to the story that unfolds. Moreover, this kind of  just-the-facts entry into a world where consensual reality will later be banished in favor of madness, obsession, secrets and unbelievable truths is, of course, the signature opening flourish of H.P. Lovecraft, the early-20th century American master of “Weird Fiction” and the creator of the Cthulhu mythos, a body of stories celebrated for their unique contribution to dark fantasy and infamous for their reliance on racist and xenophobic terrors.

The echoes of Lovecraft’s style are deliberate, and the enigma of Charlie’s vanishment – investigated with heartbreakingly rational care by his wife Marina – becomes part of a story that draws on the mystery of Lovecraft himself. When Charlie discovers a long-neglected memoir by one of Lovecraft’s admirers, which fills in a surprising gap in the author’s biography, he sets out to investigate and document a story that will change the world’s understanding of Lovecraft and his work. But as Charlie journeys down the rabbit hole of stories — stories that lead from Florida in the 1930s to the horrors witnessed by liberators of the concentration camps, from a clutch of utopian science fiction writers in New York to a community of paranoid expats in 1950s Mexico City – he encounters forces that he hasn’t bargained on facing. Some seem to be arrayed mysteriously against his work, and some seem to come from within Charlie himself.

Like a set of Russian nesting dolls, The Night Ocean is a work that compels readers to see just how far within its nested stories they can follow Charlie’s quest. The result is a work about possession and loss, love and betrayal, and our unending thirst for the strange truth only fiction seems to be able to provide.

I sat down recently to talk to Paul La Farge about the origin of The Night Ocean, and all of the questions and obsessions it invites us to consider. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.– Bill Tipper

The Barnes & Noble Review: Was The Night Ocean a long-gestating idea, or was there a specific event that made you go “Aha!”?

Paul La Farge: Yes, there was. I was the writer-in-residence at Bard College in 2005, and one of the people on the faculty there is the poet and novelist Robert Kelly. I’ve been a fan of his — read his novel The Scorpions, which blew my mind. I got to go out to dinner with him, and somehow it slipped out that I was a fan of Lovecraft, that I’d been a Lovecraft fan as a kid. And it turned out that he knew a lot about Lovecraft, and he had been friends with Lovecraft’s friend Samuel Loveman, who was a used-book seller in New York for decades. And he told me the story of Lovecraft’s friendship with Robert Barlow, and he said, “Did you know that Lovecraft traveled to Florida to spend time with this very young fan in the summer of 1934 and 1935?” I had no idea. I had never heard of Barlow. So he told me a little bit about that, and then he told me some things about Barlow’s life, about what happened after Lovecraft died, and how Barlow had gone on — he’d moved to San Francisco, he’d become an experimental poet, and then he’d moved to Mexico City and become an anthropologist and an authority on the civilization of the Aztecs.

I had no idea about any of it, but as he talked, I thought, Wow, that’s actually a pretty good idea for a book. So I went home and I looked Barlow up, and his life was more interesting, if anything, than Robert had made it out to be. The questions about Lovecraft’s visits to Florida were also quite interesting, and there was no obvious answer to the question: What was a forty-three-year-old horror writer doing for two months at a stretch with a sixteen-year-old fan? What did they do? What was the nature of their relationship? What happened during the time they spent together? None of that was known, at least as far as I could find out.

BNR: Did Barlow himself ever comment on that relationship?

PLF: Both of them commented on it. Barlow wrote two memoirs about Lovecraft. I can’t remember if they’re both about the time that Lovecraft and Barlow spent together in Florida, but they both touch on that time. Lovecraft wrote dozens of letters to friends and relatives while he was in Florida, talking about things that happened while they were together. But at the center of it, there was this question mark, which Barlow doesn’t address directly, and neither does Lovecraft.

So I thought: That’s something that I would like to write a book about. But not exactly to fill in the blank. Not just to say, you know “Gosh, could it be that H. P. Lovecraft, the renowned American horror writer, was (a) homosexual and (b) in a relationship with a sixteen-year-old fan?” The question of Lovecraft’s sexuality has come up before. It’s one that people who study Lovecraft have been asking for decades. And the answer to it isn’t going to be as interesting as the question. Whatever anybody decides is going to be hypothetical, first of all, because we can’t know. But also it’s: OK, he was gay — and your point was what? There’s something a little deflating about coming down on one side or other of the question, of saying: This was Lovecraft’s relation to Barlow; this was Lovecraft’s sexuality; this is what happened.

So what I wanted to do wasn’t so much to answer the question as to write a novel about the question. I thought: OK, how can I do that? Maybe I could have somebody propose an answer which creates a scandal in the world of Lovecraft fandom, but then it turns out to be a fiction, and we have to live through both the scandal and the disruption of Lovecraft’s reputation, but then also the unmasking and the revelation that all of these people have burnt the wrong witch.

BNR: You reconstruct a view of what could have happened in that Florida, in that idyll, one with a melancholy, confused element. But it also has a real sweetness, this uneasy, fraught relationship between the older writer and this younger man, this boy, who is trying to emerge almost from this sort of chrysalis of himself, and become something new.

Then around this wonderful kernel of a romance that can’t quite come into being you expand into what I think of as a love story about stories, but one that takes a very dark turn. In a sense it seems to be a book about becoming possessed by books.

PLF: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s a really lovely way of putting it. All of the things that you’ve said were on my mind. One thing that’s notably absent from Lovecraft’s biography is the experience of romantic love. He was someone who was married for a couple of years, but when you read the story of his marriage you get the feeling it was maybe a warm friendship which he converted into marriage out of a feeling of what he ought to do as an adult, rather than because he had a passionate attachment to his wife.

BNR: They lived apart for some time as well, did they not?

PLF: They lived together in Brooklyn, and then, for economic reasons, she took a job somewhere else, and Lovecraft stayed behind, and then they separated. And he never had another romantic relationship.

So there was a part of me, I guess, maybe, that wanted to give that to Lovecraft, and say, “OK, this is what you might have had; you could have had this love story; and there might have been some actual warmth, some actual affection in your life.”

BNR: That’s something it seems we frequently want to find in the lives of writers. If they did not have an overt grand passion or a deep and well-evidenced romantic life, one wants to find that buried somewhere in there. It’s satisfying to us to look for secret love story.

PLF: Yeah. I think because we find love stories satisfying in themselves, and also because we want to be sure that these writers are people like us, that they have the same desires and the same attachments, or maybe even that they are people whose lives are more exciting and more sort of passionate than ours. And the truth might be quite different, that someone like Lovecraft was just a person for whom that wasn’t very interesting, and the reason that he was able to do what he did as a writer was because his energy and his attention were directed elsewhere.

The other part of your question about literary possession is also something that was on my mind. What happened is, I started to play around with this book in 2005, and I wrote some preliminary draft type things, some scenes, some chapters, and I set it aside, and I kept coming back to it and coming back to it and coming back to it.

I began with a little bit of story about Spinks, and his relationship in the ’40s and ’50s to the world of fandom.

BNR: I don’t want to spoil too many of the intricate, layered revelations of this book. But Spinks is a figure who emerges for the reader rather later in the story as a science fiction fan who has a particular engagement with the sort of world of Lovecraft, and begins to sort of insert himself into that world.

PLF: Yes. He is the editor of Lovecraft’s erotic diary, the intimate diary of H. P. Lovecraft. I couldn’t find a way, starting from that place, to sustain the story. It kept sort of going and then stopping, and going and stopping. Finally, I was at the New York Public Library, I had this wonderful fellowship at the Cullman Center, and I was reading a lot about Lovecraft and Barlow, and their world, and their friends and their friends’ world, and I immersed myself in it.

I came back to one of Lovecraft’s novels — really Lovecraft’s only novel. It’s a book called The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which he wrote right after he left New York and went home to Providence, and he had a kind of creative burst, and wrote a lot of the things that he’s remembered for now, and among them was this book. In a way, it’s the most autobiographical of Lovecraft’s fictions. It’s about a young man growing up in Providence who likes to walk around at night. He’s fascinated by history. He’s fascinated by architecture. He’s an antiquarian. He takes a strong interest in genealogy, and he looks into his own family tree, which ends up getting him in some sort of supernatural trouble. But the character feels very close, in some ways, to Lovecraft. He shares a lot of Lovecraft’s tastes and Lovecraft’s interests, and Lovecraft’s qualities. That story is also, I should say, a story about possession. It’s a story about possession which does not end well.

BNR:   I think it’s a story that many people who encounter Lovecraft through some of only his most famous short stories like “The Call of Cthulhu” would be find a little surprising. It takes the shape of more of a ghost story of the kind that we might be more familiar with from other writers —  rather than the encounter with cosmic-scale monsters as in so many of the other tales.

PLF: The story does become quite lurid by the end. But there is a kind of sobriety to the opening parts of the book. Lovecraft’s a very competent writer. He doesn’t have to be florid. And he’s engaged with all the world in that book, in a way.

So I knew that I wanted to do something with The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. I knew that would be a reference point for The Night Ocean. And in a moment of something, of confusion or desperation or whatever it was, I thought: OK, I’m going to make an outline of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and then I’ll see if I can use that structure, and I’ll see if there’s maybe some way that I can borrow it for The Night Ocean. So I made the outline, and then I started thinking about the different layers of The Night Ocean and how they might map onto the plot of Ward, and it turned out that there was a really natural fit. It was very easy for me to reimagine the episodes of Ward as scenes in the story that I wanted to tell. And that became the outline of The Night Ocean.

So it does follow the structure of Lovecraft’s novel, and in that sense, it’s literally a possessed book. It is possessed by the spirit of another book. I thought that was actually something that I wanted to happen. I wanted that feeling to be there.

BNR: I think that feeling is absolutely there! But you embed that very Lovecraftian and literary tale in a story that seems very poignantly about two people and their marriage.  Where did that part come from?

PLF: It comes from a few places. But I think most importantly, it comes from a desire on my part to write a book that would be of interest to readers who aren’t Lovecraft fans, to readers who aren’t already steeped in Lovecraft’s mythos and the various books and creatures and ideas that populate his cosmos. I think for that to be the case, I needed some of the characters not to live in that world already. There needed to be people who are coming at it from outside, so that they can be introduced to that world, and then they can kind of wander deeper and deeper into the mystery of it — but one step at a time rather than presuming all of this knowledge.

So Marina (the narrator who opens the book and who narrates much of it) is that character, for me. She’s our witness, our guide, our point of entry into this world. But it’s not her world

BNR: She’s kind of a Lovecraft skeptic, in the sense that Lovecraft is not a writer whose sensibility would have lent itself to her. She is a scientist.

PLF: That’s right. She’s a doctor. She’s a levelheaded person. She’s an empirical person. (Lovecraft was also an empirical person, but never mind.) And she’s never read Lovecraft when the book begins. She’s never even heard of him. So she really has to get the story told to her from the beginning, which gives me a chance to tell this story to the reader from the beginning. And it also maybe puts the story in a perspective where there’s at least one point of view that we feel we can trust. The other characters tell us stories, and there are a lot of true things in them, but they aren’t always completely true stories. At least with Marina, there is some ground under her feet, and maybe under our feet, while we’re reading her.

BNR: So Marina’s entry, her unlikely entry into this world, this kind of fantastical world, or this literary world, is through her husband, Charlie, a writer who opens the Pandora’s Box that this book winds up being.

PLF: Marina is a character who knows when to stop. She has limits. She will engage with something, but not past the point where it’s dangerous to her. Charlie doesn’t. He is willing to throw himself completely into the things that he’s interested in, into the things that he cares about. And that’s dangerous for him, to be that engaged, to immerse yourself in someone else’s world. You run the risk of being taken over. You run the risk of getting too involved.

BNR: So Charlie’s taken over by the project he’s involved with, by the voices or the stories of the people that he’s involved with. But that pliability also shows up in his willingness to put all kinds of masks on himself. He is constantly being fooled, but he’s also someone who does a significant amount of deception.

PLF: That’s true. I imagine those things, in a way, going hand-in-hand. That Charlie’s sense of who he is, is porous, so he is able to let other people in. As the book begins, he has made his living, such as it is, writing profiles, so he sort of immerses himself in other people’s lives and then writes about them, and that’s what he does to get involved with the story of Lovecraft and Barlow, which is where the book begins. That porosity is great for him as a writer of profiles. It allows him to almost become the person he is writing about, to see the world from that person’s point of view, to really get into their head and to write these very empathetic stories. But it also means that when he’s thinking about who he is, and how to present himself, he has to deal with the same porosity, and maybe there’s a kind of vagueness or a kind of uncertainty. Who is he? And in order to answer that question, he puts on a mask. He tells a story. He says, “This is who I am now; this is the part I’m playing.” And there’s a kind of deception in that.

BNR: One of the wonderful things about The Night Ocean is that there is never a point at which we feel like we’ve reached the level “base reality.” There’s always the possibility that there is another mask that might be seen to slip if we were only looking at it from the right angle. It’s about how we decide a story is true and how we decide a story is not true.

PLF: Yes.

BNR: It’s also populated with figures who are both based on real people from American history, and especially literary history, like William Burroughs and Donald Wollheim and other luminaries of science fiction, and they all  come with their own passionate interpretative lenses. They all give us an opportunity to see what’s happening as “it’s not that reality; it’s really this reality.”

PLF: In an everyday way, we put on masks. We see the world through the lens of our interests and our beliefs. It’s not that we are hoaxes, or that we are making ourselves up as we go along. But we do tell different stories about who we are, depending on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We do tell different stories about what’s happening around us, depending on what we believe — and not only what we believe to be true but what we believe to be right, or good, or bad or whatever. So there is a constant creation of fictions that goes on as we live our lives and as we get along with each other. And if we try to get past those fictions, it’s very difficult to try to find out who someone is really.

When I was getting ready to write The Night Ocean I thought a lot about the active unmasking, and the way that hoaxes are exposed, and the hunger for truth that leads people to expose hoaxes, and to feel like, OK, now we know the real story. We hate to feel like we’re being lied to. Nobody wants to believe that what we’re being . . . We want to believe that we’re being lied to, but we don’t like it. We want to know what’s behind the lie. We’re hungry to find out the true facts.

BNR: The latter sections of the book really turn on our desire for the act of unmasking.

PLF: Yes. It’s very satisfying for us to say, “You say X, but I know Y to be the case,” because that puts me in a position of power, because I know the truth that you may or may not know, but that you’re not sharing with me. In a way, that’s the appeal of Lovecraft’s stories, that they are telling you the real truth about the cosmos: By the way, you didn’t know it, but Cthulhu is sleeping at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and humans are latecomers to the earth, and there’s all this other intelligent life and countless millennia of weird history have happened before people ever came along.

BNR: Horror is almost always a narrative that relies on the idea of “you don’t know the real story.”

PLF: “You can’t handle the truth.” The horror story is an initiation. It’s taking you from your place of ignorance, and it’s leading you into the world of initiated, and then, however unpleasant that world is, at least you have the consolation that you know the facts. You’ve been wised up.

BNR: Unless you choose to see it as not a consolation. In Lovecraft’s stories, getting wised up is the worst thing that can happen to a person.

PLF: It’s the worst thing that can happen to the characters. But for the reader, it’s very satisfying. I think that’s why Lovecraft appeals so strongly to teenagers. Right? Maybe teenage boys in particular, who are very, like, curious about the world, and also maybe sometimes a little uninformed. If you’re a teenage boy, you really want to be wised up. You want to feel like you know something that other people don’t.

But one thing that The Night Ocean is about is: What if you can’t just raise the mask and find out the true facts? What if the story that the person is telling kind of is their true self. What if that’s where the truth was? So this whole act of unmasking isn’t necessarily taking you from ignorance to knowledge. It’s just taking you from one kind of knowledge to another kind of knowledge.

BNR: By the way, this is a book that’s also very funny in a lot of places. There’s a wonderful section following Charlie as he goes to a Lovecraft convention to promote his book and give talks and stuff like that, and the local bars have Lovecraft specials, and he eats Lovecraft-themed seafood dishes…

PLF: Cthulhu calamari.

BNR: Which sounds either tasty or terrifying, depending on how you see it.

PLF: That was an actual thing. I went to a gaming convention years ago in Indianapolis, and there was a whole Lovecraft-themed menu at one of the restaurants, and they had Cthulhu calamari. They were terrible.

BNR: I was curious whether The Night Ocean was strongly influenced by other reading — as I read I thought of stories by Jorge Luis Borges that follow the logic of trying to get through the myth, the narrative, the mystery that you are presented with, only to find at the end that what you achieve isn’t a sort of firm ground of truth beyond that, but rather the simultaneous pleasure, and sometimes terror, of a world which is all narrative, which is masks upon masks upon masks.

PLF: Yes. I think about that Borges story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” about an imaginary encyclopedia that encroaches more and more on the real world until it feels as though the whole world is becoming a fiction from this encyclopedia.

BNR: There’s something in both stories that suggests the virality of a certain kind of fantasy.

PLF: I think that’s true. I think about what happened with Lovecraft’s imaginary book, The Necronomicon, which is this book of forbidden knowledge that is supposed to drive the reader mad. Lovecraft describes it as a real book. And he also got his friends, fellow writers like Robert E. Howard and Robert Bloch and Frank Belknap Long and all these people . . .

BNR: They refer to it also in their books.

PLF: They refer to it in their books, so that it comes to seem more and more real. And then everybody else kind of plays along. So people would plant cards for it in, like, the Yale University Library catalog or in the catalogs of rare book dealers, and as more and more people got involved, it came to seem more and more real. It’s like there was something so compelling about the idea of this fake book that everybody decided to bring it into existence. And finally, there was a paperback book called The Necronomicon.

BNR: I remember running into it at Waldenbooks in my science fiction−obsessed teenage years — it just was there, this black thing. It was very Heavy Metal.

PLF: Yes, it’s very Heavy Metal. The pentagram on the cover. So it’s almost like there’s a virality to hoaxes, to a certain kind of hoax. You experience it and then you perpetuate it. Or maybe you experience one kind of hoax and then you perpetuate another. There’s like the temptation to do something similar.

BNR: That seems to me to be of a piece with the idea that if you practice magic, maybe you can make the world magical by bringing fantasy, kind of hauling it out of the pages of books, and whether it’s the fantasy of a delicious hoax or the fantasy of magic — you know, if the magic described in a book might be made to work in the real world.

PLF: I think there’s a strong connection between those things. I think hoaxes are a kind of magical thinking. It’s like: I’m just going to make the world be the way I imagine it by saying that’s how it is. I’m going to bend the shape of the world to my will, and I’ll get away with it for a while.

BNR: One can argue that this is an age-old political technique. But I think we’re in an era where that’s become a more total phenomenon.

PLF: It has. Those stories are very powerful. And the acknowledgment that they don’t necessarily fit consensus reality is also increasingly explicit. I don’t know if for better or worse.

BNR: But you have major figures saying, “Well, I said that — but I was just saying that.”

PLF: Right. Or “these are alternative facts.” And of course, the stories that some of these people are telling are actually horror stories. They are stories about how terrible the inner cities are in America, or how many crimes are committed by immigrants, or how the crime rate is at an all-time high in the U.S. when it’s actually at an all-time low. They are alarmist stories, but they are very compelling. And we’re willing, at a certain level, to base policy on them.

BNR: Do novels and stories, and stories about stories of this kind, have any work to do in this context? Do they inoculate us against the danger? In other words, do they help keep us from making Charlie’s mistake? Is that a reasonable thing to expect, or is that something to ask of a novel that can’t really be asked of it?

PLF: I don’t know that that’s what novels do. I think there’s a lot of great critical writing that makes those points, and there’s a lot of great journalism that can kind of wake us up to the dangers of subscribing to stories and a lot of history. I think, in a way, a novel can give you a question. It can give you something to think about. But for a novel to make a case for something feels like a kind of bad place for a novel to be.

For me, fiction is more interesting when it’s in a kind of state of internal tension, when there’s a pull in one direction and then there’s a pull in the other direction also. Maybe, if I did my job right in The Night Ocean, on the one hand you feel the danger of believing too wholeheartedly in somebody else’s story about you or themselves or the world, but maybe, at the same time, on the other hand, you feel the appeal.

It would be terrible to live in a world where we couldn’t let ourselves be engaged at all. How cold would that be? How would we connect to each other if we couldn’t listen to each other’s stories, if, as soon as you started talking I said, “Ah, you’re just telling me a story.” There would be no possibility for empathy. There would be barely any possibility for communication. So we need some engagement. We need some warmth. We need some ability to care about each other’s stories, even as, maybe, in the back of our mind, there is a sense that we’re not learning everything, and that the person we’re talking to might have other aspects that elude us, and that can come back and surprise and disturb us.

Author photo of Paul La Farge credit: Carol Shadford