The Night Ocean: a gay HP Lovecraft and the horrors and delights of The Erotonomicon
by Drew Rowsome -
None of the narrators in The Night Ocean are to be trusted. But all of them are fascinating.
The winding, nesting tale is ostensibly written by Miranda, a psychologist who is investigating the apparent suicide of her husband, Charlie Willet. Charlie, a journalist specializing in human interest stories, had been investigating a story about the horror writer HP Lovecraft and his long-rumoured affair with a much younger man. From there the tale gets weird and Miranda, who carefully adds footnotes for verisimilitude, is a grounding voice of reason.
I ordered a copy of The Night Ocean immediately after reading a review in the New York Times. I had no idea that HP Lovecraft had possibly been gay, or what qualified as homosexual in his time period, the 1920s and '30s. At some point, years ago, I had read some Lovecraft and found it dated, overwritten and not particularly appealing. But I was also aware that he is hugely influential, having basically invented the horror genre. Stephen King's Revival ends with a full-on salute to Lovecraft and it is the weakest part of an otherwise stellar book. Edward Lee's Pages Torn from a Travel Journal and Neil Gaiman's "Orange" riff on Lovecraft and are much more successful.
A quick googling found that Lovecraft has indeed been long considered gay and a re-read of "The Call of Cthulhu" confirmed that he was at least very obsessed with homoerotism. Of course the problem with Lovecraft is that he was also virulently racist and anti-Semitic, the former also confirmed by the re-read. What author Paul La Farge does in The Night Ocean is take Lovecraft's sexuality and spin it into multiple threads that question identity, the nature of horror, and how we create ourselves. It is masterfully done and intoxicating to read.
The threads all hinge on diaries kept by Lovecraft that were later published as The Erotonomicon, a play on Lovecraft's grimoire, The Necronomicon (now more familiar from The Evil Dead). Lovecraft's reputation is ruined, lives are ruined, and the actual provenance of the diaries is constantly in question. Reading The Night Ocean is dizzying as the line between fact and fiction continually blurs and stretches resulting in disorientation. La Farge is urging us to look at the power of the written word and what it can create.
Several characters expound on what a novel is - there is a moving scene in a liberated concentration camp when horror comics are provided to the survivors - and at almost any point in the book one can stop to note how profound, and slyly inserted, La Farge's characters' statements are. Except that, of course, none of the characters are necessarily real or even real in the context of the novel. Somehow that makes it all the more emotionally satisfying.
Adding in much satire on the pompousness of the science fiction community, a few appearances by William S Burroughs, acute observations on race and class (Charlie Willett is incidentally black and one of the main potentially transmitigated souls is incidentally Jewish, but for Lovecraft that would make them less than human), realistic and touching love stories (gay and straight), and a genuinely propulsive pace that draws one in, makes The Night Ocean an irresistible read. Most gratifying is that La Farge manages to rectify my most nagging problem with Lovecraft's fiction, his habit of describing something as indescribably horrifying: La Farge finds descriptions that are vivid and are the words that Lovecraft was unable to conjure.
The only problem with The Night Ocean is that the vast array of characters and necessarily emotionally remote narrator, produces moments that are more intellectual chess moves than relatable motivations. This becomes, alas, more acute towards the end (but by then you will be hooked) and The Night Ocean ends on a note of resignation admitting that a proper ending does not exist. Of course the ending is also realistic, life doesn't often tie up loose ends, and very Lovecraftian, so it is perfectly apt and oddly, disturbingly satisfying.
Wondering if The Erotonimicon is real, I googled after finishing The Night Ocean, and found that Black Hour Books is taking pre-orders for a reprint (all previous copies were supposed to have been destroyed, having been judged obscene, by the government). The website, blackhourbooks.com, also sells copies of books by some of La Farge's other alter-egos but it is enticing to believe. And that is the other powerful message that The Night Ocean delivers, sometimes belief is ecstasy and sometimes destruction. La Farge refuses to make a value judgement on either result - once again, very Lovecraftian.