Marina Willett, M.D., has a problem. Her husband, Charlie, has become obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft, in particular with one episode in the legendary horror writer's life: In the summer of 1934, the "old gent" lived for two months with a gay teenage fan named Robert Barlow, at Barlow's family home in central Florida. What were the two of them up to? Were they friendsor something more? Just when Charlie thinks he's solved the puzzle, a new scandal erupts, and he disappears. The police say it's suicide. Marina is a psychiatrist, and she doesn't believe them.
A tour-de-force of storytelling, The Night Ocean follows the lives of some extraordinary people: Lovecraft, the most influential American horror writer of the 20th century, whose stories continue to win new acolytes, even as his racist views provoke new critics; Barlow, a seminal scholar of Mexican culture who killed himself after being blackmailed for his homosexuality (and who collaborated with Lovecraft on the beautiful story "The Night Ocean"); his student, future Beat writer William S. Burroughs; and L.C. Spinks, a kindly Canadian appliance salesman and science-fiction fan the only person who knows the origins of The Erotonomicon, purported to be the intimate diary of Lovecraft himself.
As a heartbroken Marina follows her missing husband's trail in an attempt to learn the truth, the novel moves across the decades and along the length of the continent, from a remote Ontario town, through New York and Florida to Mexico City. The Night Ocean is about love and deception about the way that stories earn our trust, and betray it.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.50(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
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My husband, Charlie Willett, disappeared from a psychiatric hospital in the Berkshires on January 7, 2012. I say disappeared because I don’t believe he’s dead, although that would be the reasonable conclusion. Charlie’s army jacket, jeans, shoes, socks, and underwear (though, strangely, not his shirt) were all found at the edge of Agawam Lake the day after he left the hospital. The police say Charlie’s footprints led to the edge of the lake, and nobody’s footprints led away. Even if Charlie could somehow have left the lake without leaving tracks, they say, it’s hard to see how he would have survived long enough to reach shelter. According to the National Weather Service, the overnight low temperature in Stockbridge was 15 degrees, and Charlie didn’t have an extra set of clothes: the girl who gave him a ride swears he wasn’t carrying anything. What’s more, no one denies that Charlie was suicidal. The last time I saw him, in Brooklyn, he told me he’d taken a handful of Ambien, just to see what would happen. What happened was, he slept for twelve hours, had a dizzy spell in the shower, and sprained his ankle. “My life is becoming a sad joke,” he said, “except there’s no one around to laugh at it.” He looked at me entreatingly. I told him there was nothing funny about an Ambien overdose. It could kill you, if you took it with another depressant. “Thanks, Miss Merck Manual,” Charlie said. “I’m still your wife,” I said, “and you’re scaring me. If you really want to hurt yourself, you should be in the hospital.” To my surprise, Charlie asked, “Which hospital?” I thought for a moment, then I told him about the place in the Berkshires.
Two days later, Charlie was on the bus to Stockbridge. He called me that evening. “I feel like I’m in high school again, Mar,” he said. “The food is terrible, and everybody’s on drugs. I nearly had a panic attack, trying to figure out who to sit with at dinner. Who are the cool kids in an insane asylum? The bulimics look great, but the bipolars make better conversation.” “Sounds like you’ll fit right in,” I said, and Charlie laughed. He sounded like himself, for the first time in months. What had he sounded like before that? Like himself, but falling down a well in slow motion: each time I saw him, his voice was fainter and somehow more echo-y. That’s something Charlie might have said; normally, I am more cautious with my descriptions. I have never heard anyone fall down a well. “Are you on drugs?” I asked. “I start tomorrow,” Charlie said. “Wanted to call you tonight, in case there’s anything you want to ask before they erase my mind.” “Don’t joke,” I said. I thought about it. “What’s your favorite nut?” I asked. “Oh, Mar,” he said, “you know the answer to that one.”
Charlie called again two days after that and told me they had him on 2 milligrams of risperidone—which was more than I would have given him, but never mind—and it made him woozy. “But the characters, Mar,” he said, “the characters!” He was taking notes in his journal, for an essay he planned to write about his downfall. “Take it easy,” I said. “If they think your journal is antisocial, they might confiscate it.” “I am,” Charlie said. “I’ve only got enough energy to write for, like, five minutes a day. The rest of the time I watch Lost on DVD.” He didn’t talk about his therapy, but I didn’t expect him to. We had always respected each other’s privacy. “How long are they going to keep you?” I asked. Charlie said, “They’re saying a couple of weeks.” I said I would visit as soon as I could, probably the next weekend. Then, afraid that Charlie would draw the wrong conclusion, I clarified: “I just want to know you’re all right, and that you aren’t making the doctors miserable.” Charlie said it was his job to make the doctors miserable. Then he said, “Just kidding. My job right now is to make a world I can live in.” I wondered if he’d picked that phrase up in therapy, and what dopey therapist could have fed it to him. What Charlie needed was exactly not to make a world. He needed to figure out how to live in the one that exists. All of that took probably two seconds. “I’m happy that you’re doing well,” I said, and Charlie said, “Thanks.” We hung up.
That was on January fifth. On the seventh, Charlie forced the lock on his door with a bit of plastic, climbed a cyclone fence, and hitched a ride with a Simon’s Rock student named Jessica Ng. He told her he was meeting friends at Monument Mountain, for an Orthodox Christmas celebration, and she, the fool, dropped him on the shoulder of Route 7. He waved, cheerfully, she said, and walked into the forest. It’s all in the police report. For the police, and Charlie’s mother, and more or less everyone else, the last sentence of the story will be written in the summer, when Agawam Lake warms up, and Charlie’s body rises to the surface. Only I do not believe he is dead.
This, you’ll tell me, is pure wish fulfillment. I feel guilty that I didn’t save Charlie from suicide, so I’ve constructed a fantasy in which his suicide didn’t happen. It’s possible. Just because I am a psychotherapist doesn’t mean that I’m immune to delusional thinking, and I do feel guilty. I lie awake wondering whether, if I’d acted differently, Charlie would still be here. If I hadn’t pushed him away in that last conversation; if I had been more patient, more understanding; if I hadn’t moved out when I learned about Lila. Or, I tell myself, because I was patient, was understanding, maybe my mistake was to keep my thoughts too much to myself. When Charlie came back from Mexico City with evidence of Robert Barlow’s miraculous survival, I could have told him the evidence didn’t add up. When he went to see Barlow—the person he thought was Barlow—I might have said what I felt, which was, that the story was too good to be true. Even though I know what Charlie would have said: “Mar, you’re being mistrustful. I know it’s hard for you to remember, but there are people out there who aren’t crazy.” And I would have sulked, because I hated when Charlie called me mistrustful. It made me feel small, and it wasn’t true. My real mistake, I tell myself, when midnight comes around, and I get out of bed to drink a glass of wine and listen to the BBC, my mistake was that I believed Charlie too much. Then I remind myself that I loved Charlie because he was so unbearably easy to believe.
This is not the story of our marriage. Still, I want to note some things that happened early on, because they make what happened later easier to understand. Charlie and I were set up. His friend Eric was dating my friend Grace, and so, in accordance with the law that every young paired-off person in New York City has to pair off his or her friends, Grace threw a party in her Hester Street studio, and Charlie and I were invited. I didn’t want to go. This was in 2004, when I was doing my residency at Weill Cornell, and I reserved my free time for sleep or reading the novels that piled up on my little glass-topped table. Also, the night of the party was very cold. But then I thought, Marina, if you don’t leave the house, you’re going to spend the rest of your life alone, or, worse, you’re going to marry a doctor. So I put on about six layers of clothes, and, feeling like one of the old Star Wars action figures Charlie collected—I didn’t know about them yet, but now, eight years later, Charlie images are what come to mind—I took a cab to the Lower East Side. As soon as I got to the party, I wished I hadn’t come. Thirty of Grace’s art school friends were crammed into her studio, holding drinks close to their chests and shouting at one another over a mix CD. It was like being in college again, and I felt a kind of despair, watching all those people pretend that time did not exist. But it was so cold out that I didn’t go home right away, and while I was leaning against the wall, wondering if I had changed since college, Grace came up to me and shouted, “Marina! I need your help! I left my inhaler somewhere, and now I can’t find it.”
With a familiar mild irritation—Grace was always losing things, always asking for help—I headed toward the bathroom. My path was blocked by a large plastic rabbit, spray-painted gold, and while I stood before it, wondering what it was doing there, a boy asked if I knew where the rabbit had come from. “Probably from a gallery in Williamsburg,” I said, and the boy, who was, of course, Charlie, laughed. He told me he had seen a rabbit just like this one, once, in Memphis, and he’d discovered that it came from a chain of restaurants called the Happy Rabbit. The chain was founded by a Chinese immigrant named William Lee, and the amazing thing, Charlie said, although I didn’t know his name yet, the amazing thing, he said, was that Mr. Lee actually served rabbit, because he believed that, in the future, nuclear war would make it impossible to raise beef cows or even sheep. “Like many other people,” Charlie said, “he was preparing for a future that never happened.” “Or at least one that hasn’t happened yet,” I said. Charlie grinned. It was as if he’d thrown a football into some trees, and I had not only caught it but thrown it back to him. “Actually,” he said, “I’m not sure this is one of the Happy Rabbit rabbits. But it could be.” He was skinny and stooped, with a scraggly goatee and hair clipped close to his skull. His skin was light brown. He wore a green army jacket over a blue paisley shirt and red pants: a motley outfit, I thought, as if he were protecting himself by playing the fool. He wasn’t the man I had dreamed of meeting, but my dreams were confused, and the men I did meet were often good-looking jerks. And then it was midnight, and everyone else had gone out to a bar. We were still standing beside the rabbit. Suddenly, Charlie asked, “Is it all right if I kiss you?” I said he might as well. “What do you mean, I might as well?” he asked. “Well,” I said, “no one knows when that nuclear war’s going to show up.”
But this isn’t the story of our marriage. It’s not the story of how quickly Charlie moved in with me and stood Han Solo and Darth Vader on my bookshelf, in front of D. W. Winnicott and George Eliot. It isn’t the story of how we got married at City Hall, with Charlie’s mother and my brothers as witnesses, because my parents refused to come down from Connecticut to watch me marry a schvartze; or how we posed in front of a photomural of the Statue of Liberty, and Charlie remarked that the statue was exactly the wrong symbol for people who were getting married, and I punched him in the ribs. What’s important is that I loved Charlie because he made life lively. When I met him, he worked as a fact-checker at the Village Voice, and in his free time, he wrote profiles of people who could have been famous, or should have been famous but weren’t, because of some stubbornness in their character, or some flaw in the world. He didn’t make a lot of money, but that didn’t matter, because I was making enough. After my residency, I was an attending for two years at Mount Sinai, then I went into private practice, doing analytic psychotherapy, which I believe in, and which I’m good at.
What Charlie was good at was immersing himself in obscure and beautiful facts. He loved the people he wrote about in a way that I sometimes envied but would have been afraid to imitate. As a therapist, you get to care deeply about your patients, but you can’t love them without sacrificing the neutrality that makes therapy work. For Charlie, there was no limit. When he was writing about an employee of the Oakland Department of Motor Vehicles who had invented a purely rational language and was, so far as anyone knew, its only speaker, he learned the language. He and the DMV employee conversed in it; I listened with amazement as Charlie clicked and clucked into his phone, scribbling notes on a steno pad balanced on his knee. But when I read his profile of the language inventor, I understood why he had put so much effort into the research: I could see the DMV employee standing at the breakfast bar of his bachelor’s apartment (he’d invented his language, he said, as a way to make sense of things after a bad divorce), eating a Baby Ruth, and licking chocolate from his fingers. “Was that what you were talking about? Candy?” I asked. “Uh, no,” Charlie said. “Actually, I intuited he was a Three Musketeers kind of guy.” “You intuited?” “Yeah,” Charlie said, “sometimes, 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. Of course, I asked him about it, after I wrote the first draft. Baby Ruth. I was pretty close, right?”
Why was Charlie the way he was? As we got to know each other, I couldn’t help coming up with some hypotheses. His parents were both professors at Columbia, his father in English, his mother in philosophy. When Charlie was ten, his father, who happened to be black, was accused of sexually harassing several of his female graduate students. He cried racism, but Charlie’s mother, who happened to be white, left him anyway. Charlie’s father died of a brain tumor before the charges were resolved. These events, coming one after another, sent Charlie into what I would have called a serious depression; he called it his passage through the underworld. He lost interest in doing anything, and in seeing anyone he hadn’t known before his father died. The only exception to this rule was Dungeons & Dragons, which he started playing when he was twelve and played more or less nonstop until he turned seventeen. “I had the little figurines and everything,” he said. “Even my nerd friends were freaked out. I had to play in the back room of a hobby shop in Midtown, with these Asian kids from Stuyvesant, and some guys in their thirties who were probably repressed sexual predators. But that was how I met Eric—he was as messed up as I was, or more so. We used to take the bus together, to D&D tournaments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and so on. We’d stay up all night, come back on the bus in the morning, and go straight to school. It was like we were on drugs, except that we didn’t even drink. And we did super well in the tournaments. There was this one time, we were playing through the Tomb of Horrors, and Eric and I were the last two survivors.” “So what happened?” I asked, trying not to smile. “I killed him,” Charlie said. “The first-place prize was a twenty-dollar gift certificate. A man has his priorities.” “I meant, why did you stop playing,” I said. Charlie blushed. “I went to Princeton,” he said, “and met a girl named Megan, who was into Pablo Neruda. Long story short, I turned over a new leaf and became the outstanding writer of nonfiction whom you see before you.”
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Paul La Farge
"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 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- twentieth-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: The first thing I wanted to ask, as flatfooted a question as this is: Can you talk a little bit about how this book came to be? Was it long-gestating, 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: And Barlow himself had never commented 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 it really is kind of an idyll. It has a melancholy, confused, frustrated element to it. But it also has a real sweetness to it, 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 that does not end well.
BNR: I want to add, just because I love that story 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 surprised by the novel's difference. It takes the shape of more of a ghost story or a supernatural story of the kind that we might be more familiar with from other writers, rather than the sort of encounter with transcendental monsters, which is so much of what the rest of the stories are.
PLF: The story does become quite lurid by the end. But there is a kind of sobriety to the opening parts of the book which make you think that Lovecraft . . . He'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! Let's talk a little bit about the story that contains or frames the other stories, which is one that seems very . . . If the other stories that are here are stories that emerge from reimagining Lovecraft's life and reimagining the story of Barlow, this real figure who met and knew Lovecraft, and had his own life story (in other words, fiction emerging from this kind of biography), you sort of contain all of that in the story of two people who encounter some of these things, but who don't come out of books. They seem very different.
BNR: Where did that 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 thisknowledge.
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: Charlie seems to be naively or in a kind of openhearted way able to be 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.
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 into aspects, sometimes even just little moments within this set of stories, 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. A lot of the Lovecraft stories are . . . you know, 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: Cthulhu calamari, 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 Block 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: And there's an argument that much of our current politics (again coming back to this) has been an exercise in remastering the political landscape solely on the basis of telling a story that is appealing. 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, so that . . . 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 there might be . . . that the person we're talking to might have other aspects that elude us, and that can come back and surprise and disturb us.
BNR: So which parts of the book did you feel like you had to sort of say: "OK, I'm going to take history and I'm just going to rip . . . sort of splice together this story that is somebody's real story, and then I am going to layer over this extremely particular fictional element."
PLF: So the question is: Where am I staying close to the history or . . .
BNR: Either one. I am curious to know where you said, "OK, this is really interesting; I'm going to stay close to it."
PLF: I am kind of doing both through the whole thing. It's the truth. I made a lot of notes when I was at the Cullman Center. I spent most of my nine months there reading and making notes, and I made a chronology of all of the useful-seeming events in everybody's lives, and I wrote little capsule biographies of all of the characters, and some of them have almost no lines in the book. There's a whole thing that I wanted to do with the fantasy writer and artist Mervyn Peake, who showed up at Belsen as an artist, and whose life was forever changed. He visited Belsen after the camp was liberated, and he was there, and the later course of his life was quite shaped by that. I kept trying to figure out how I could get Mervyn Peake into the book, and I read a biography of Mervyn Peake, and somehow it felt like there was more weight than that part of the story could bear.
BNR: Maybe there's another book there.
PLF: Mervyn Peake at Belsen. A little stage play, maybe. So I had all of this structure, all of this kind of . . . the chronology, the biography . . . I did a lot of going to places and looking at things, and some things came out of that. But I had all of that in my mind before I wrote almost any of the book.
BNR: So this really was, first, a kind of dive into this literary history and then . . .
PLF: Yeah. I had the history in my head, and it's almost like I was improvising on top of the rhythm. I had kind of the basic structure there, and then there are places where I'm sticking closer to it and places where I felt like I had it so internalized that I would fly above it for a little ways, and then settle back down into it. And there are places where I just don't know. There are things that I couldn't find out, so there was no . . . I had to make something up.
BNR: Are some of the places that you fictionalized kind of your answer to a question you had hoped to find in a book?
PLF: Yes. Certainly all the stuff where Lovecraft and Barlow are on the page together is my best guess at what their conversations might have been like or how they might have acted around each other.
BNR: There's a whole section of the book that relates to this collection of science fiction writers in New York . . .
PLF: Oh yes, the Futurians.
BNR: The Futurians. How much of that came out of the research, and how much . . .
PLF: Almost all of it came out of the research. They were very strange people. In an earlier draft, I thought, Oh, I'll have characters who are like the Futurians, and I made them up, and there was a kind of Wollheimy character and a kind of Isaac Asimovy character and a kind of Frederik Pohly character. Then I went back and I read the Damon Knight collective biography of them, and I read Pohl's memoir and a couple of things by Wollheim, and I thought: These people are actually much more interesting . . . Judy Merril's granddaughter, Emily Pohl-Weary, wrote a biography of Judy Merril, which is about all of these people also. They are far more interesting than the characters I've made up, so I just followed them for the most part.
There are a couple of things that I made up. The part where they are trying to make space suits for the first World Science Fiction Convention, I just thought, Oh, this is a funny thing; I'll have them make space suits. Because that's the kind of thing people did when they were going to conventions.
BNR: I think the portrait of that collective group as combative, political in their own context, is very different than the idea that we have of science fiction writers of that period sitting in their studies, working on . . . you know, punching up stories for pulp magazines and so forth.
PLF: Well, this was the 1930s. Science fiction felt like a plausible guide to the future. The Futurians really thought that science fiction might be a way to educate the masses, and to bring about a kind of socialist utopia. They were on board. They all belonged to the Young Communist League (almost all of them). They were committed. They couldn't afford studies. They were all desperately broke. There was no money in science fiction at that point for them. They were fighting. They saw being science fiction writers as a way to fight for justice and equality and all of the things that . . .
BNR: To sort of shape the tomorrow that they were looking at.
PLF: Yes. That they were focused on. I mean, they were focused on the sociological side of science fiction rather than on the technological side of it.
BNR: Well, it's interesting to me because one of the things that I think a lot of us have noticed in the last, say, ten or fifteen years has been the rise in fiction largely aimed at younger readers, of dystopian science fiction. This kind of a renewal of interest. A whole new generation of writers. Many more women writing in this genre. It seems interesting to me that there is almost a renewal of the effort to say: We need to start imagining what tomorrow will be like, and not in a way that's primarily about technology, but that's about what society will look like. Even though it doesn't represent the point of view of any one social movement, it seems interestingly parallel.
PLF: I think it's a thing that happens in moments of social crisis. There was a lot of dystopian science fiction in the early 1970s as a kind of response . . . By the time science fiction had caught up to the social crises of the 1960s, people were imagining the worst. Harlan Ellison, John Brunner, Philip K. Dick certainly, were imagining worlds that are contending with overpopulation, totalitarianism, apocalypse of one kind or another.
BNR: Vonnegut's science fiction takes part in that as well.
PLF: Exactly. In the 1980s, you get someone like William Gibson, who is so disaffected by capitalism and by the U.S., who is imagining a kind of Cyberpunk future where everything is . . .
BNR: A Techno dystopia.
PLF: A Techno dystopia. Everything is corporatized and dysfunctional. And now we're in a moment of crisis again, and so people are extrapolating from the crisis. They're saying how this could go really badly. Let's look forward and say, "Oh, this might not work out so well."
BNR: It's interesting in that there is a strain in American science fiction that does that, and then there is this other strain in American horror and fantasy and science fiction, that, like Lovecraft, turns away a little bit and says, "There isn't a tomorrow to worry about."
PLF: Don't worry, we're all doomed.
PLF: There's something . . . I don't know . . . I hesitate to generalize too much about it. But there's a tradition of being fascinated with the apocalypse in America. Right? We're a country that was colonized by Puritans. There's a feeling of . . .
BNR: Sinners in the hands of an angry God.
PLF: . . . sinners in the hands of an angry God, and then you get all of the Great Awakening, the second Great Awakening in the 1830s, and all these people saying, "The world is going to end on this date," "The world is going to end on this date." That stays with us. We still have a feeling of being in the end times, of thinking about the apocalypse as something that might happen sooner rather than later. That's a kind of science-fictional belief, I guess, in a way. We're looking at a future, the people who believe in the end times are looking towards the future and then saying, "Here's this horrible set of events that we see coming."
BNR: The idea of a belief in the end times, or the belief that we are in an end time, some kind of foreordained conclusion . . . What's interesting (and this kind of brings us back, I hope, to one of the main themes that this book engages with) is that that's a narrative that is not just a science-fictional narrative or a fantasy narrative, but it's a narrative that has acquired a kind of political currency, and it's so pervasive through a big part of our politics now on various ends of the political spectrum. We have a narrative about climate change that says we've irrevocably changed the planet, and we need to orient ourselves towards a kind of emergency amelioration. And then, we also have a narrative that says there are divine or metaphysical forces at work that are ordaining things to happen, and we just have to prepare for those things, whether it's digging a bomb shelter or it's etcetera.
PLF: Yeah . . .
BNR: You don't like that progression . . .
PLF: I don't know. I don't think it's completely accurate in the sense that the climate change thing is . . . Of course, it is a narrative, but it's based on a way of knowing things that doesn't feel narrative- or myth-driven. Climate change is going to happen. And the fact that there's a narrative about it may encourage people to act in a particular way, but it's going to happen whether we tell the story or not.
BNR: So as opposed to a myth or a belief about some . . .
PLF: Well, the problem with apocalyptic stories is that they could be self-fulfilling.
BNR: That's where I was trying to go with it. These are stories that have power to move us toward not exactly what they predict, but to some state that is more . . .
PLF: It doesn't matter what story we tell. The atmosphere is going to do what it does, whatever story we tell about it. And the oceans are going to do what they do, and the fish are all going to die, and it's not a matter of whether we tell a story about them dying or not the oceans are going to acidify.
BNR: If we tell a story that it's too late to alleviate it, then we sap ourselves from trying to do things to change it.
PLF: Sure. That's right. The stories can influence our action. Then you bump up against the fact that it's a lot easier to break things than it is to fix them. In a way . . . I read a lot for an earlier project about the Millerites, who were a Christian apocalyptic sect that was active in the late 1830s to early 1840s. They were one of the first groups to say, "OK, we've calculated all the dates in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelations, and the world will end on October 22, 1844," and they all sold their possessions and made peace with their fellow men and settled their debts and did all the things they thought they needed to do, and then they stayed up all night in prayer meetings that night and thought, "Here we go; this is going to be the end of the world." And of course, it wasn't, and they were a little sheepish about it, and they reacted in various ways to their disillusionment.
But one thing that strikes me about them is that they came to this belief in a period where the world was changing quickly around them. The U.S. was expanding rapidly. The population was growing rapidly. Technology was changing rapidly. This is when the railroad was coming into being. A lot of stuff was happening in their world that felt scary. And to engage with it really realistically was hard. How do you find your place in a world where you're suddenly one of many, many people rather than one of just a few people? How do you find your place in a country where you are no longer the frontier, but you're kind of the rear guard. The frontier is pushing west quite fast, and there's all these new places coming into being for you as an American citizen. Your geography is getting blown away. How do you deal with it?
The practical solutions are hard. But the imaginary solution that the whole world is going to get burned up is easy. It's a fantasy that lets you off the hook. It just says, "Why worry about the railroad?" Because the world is all going to get burned up, and you're going to go to Heaven, and Christ will come and reign for a thousand years, and everything will be OK if you just pray and behave in a Christian way. It's just like a way out of a difficult historical moment. So you can imagine the kind of end-times belief now. I don't know that much about it. I'm not an expert on it . . .
BNR: There's more than one end-times belief.
PLF: Right, there's more than one.
BNR: Some of them are religious and some of them are not really religious.
PLF: Yeah. But it feels to me like at the heart of the belief that "the world is going to end soon so why should I do anything?" is the feeling that doing anything would be really hard, and I don't know what to do.
BNR: Or, I think, powerlessness . . .
BNR: . . . in the face of these things the sort of lack of agency.
PLF: Yes. "I can't do anything, so why should I do anything?" It's much more comforting, in a way, to think that my agency is irrelevant than to think that I don't have any, or that I have a tiny amount, and that if I throw my whole being into doing it, and get everybody I know to do the same, we can exert some infinitesimal influence.
BNR: The one left turn that I want to throw back here . . .
BNR: Again, we may present this in a different order. I want to come back to the reimagining of Lovecraft's affair with Barlow. I think in the current moment, that takes on an additional resonance, this decision to not just imagine Lovecraft's erotic life, in terms which would be conventionally acceptable, and obviously to imagine them in terms of a gay relationship is far more . . . It's not so shocking now. We know enough about the lives of many people in our past who it turns out had same-sex relationships.
BNR: But one of the things that you do is playfully reimagine the names . . . They use Lovecraft's mythology in a coded way to refer to all the things that they do together.
BNR: That seems very puckish to me.
PLF: Yes. I was having fun with that. Maybe it's a little bit sophomoric. But it's working from a kind of gut sense that the horror that Lovecraft writes about in his stories and novellas and novel is connected in some kind of unconscious way to feelings about sex and sexuality, that what he's doing is maybe taking some erotics and translating them into cosmic malaise. So that when, in the erotic diary of H. P. Lovecraft, I use those names for sex acts, it's like you're just making that a little explicit and saying, "Look, maybe there's something a little, you know . . . like that was already there a little bit."
BNR: If "yog sof off" or whatever was so scary, and so hard to describe, what could that possibly have been except . . .
PLF: Yeah. What that might have been. It's not a very sophisticated understanding of Lovecraft. But I think there may be a little grain of truth in it.
BNR: I think what it also does, beyond the fun that it has with these ideas, is it reminds us of the base-level erotics of reading and of fantasy, that the distance between the frisson of desire and weirdness and compulsion that I think a lot of, let's say, teenage boys discover when they first pick up a story like "The Call of Cthulhu," is not all that separate from the inchoate and disturbing things that are happening to one's body.
PLF: I think that's a much more astute observation. What I'm really expressing there isn't so much my sense of what was really happening with Lovecraft as what was happening with me as a kid when I was reading Lovecraft, which is that the cosmic horrors that I'm discovering maybe correspond in some coded way to the horrors of adult sexuality that I was also waking up to.
BNR: The horrors and the delights.
PLF: Sure. I don't mean to be so one-sided about it.
BNR: In a sense, that's kind of . . . In the end, that's one of the beautiful things about the book, that it very movingly recasts this fascination with horror from a sort of nerdy . . . Without denying the nerdiness of an obsession with Lovecraft or anything, it really points to the way in which all of those things are just expressions of desire and a need to embrace the unknown.
PLF: Yes. I agree.
March 9, 2017