Weird Fiction Review #4: The Night Ocean

NOTE: This is the fourth of ten reviews of contemporary weird novels. An overview of the project can be found below.

About 2 years ago I reviewed Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean; it marked the beginning of my current investigation of weird fiction. I’d recently taught a seminar on “Imaginary Antarctica,” in which we’d read Poe, Verne, Lovecraft, Le Guin, and other writers who invented polar expeditions to the inhuman continent. I discovered Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, published in 2017 by Penguin, on a Chicago bookstore’s “staff recommended” shelf. I read the first half the first day I bought it; the pleasure was so intense that I fell out of life. The rest of my obligations would have to wait while I disappeared down this rabbit hole. I committed in earnest to a voyage of discovery into that vast and thrilling genre of the weird. While I stand by my original claims about the novel (archived below), I knew at the time that I’d dodged several topics. In the two years since, I’ve read a lot, learned a lot. So, for the fourth of my series of reviews, I revise my first post on The Night Ocean to clarify and expand my observations about this intense foray into weird fiction.

The Night Ocean obviously participates in the Lovecraft revival that has been growing since the 1980s, and in the more recent revival of weird literature—a sort of “becoming respectable” of weird fiction and “becoming weird” of mainstream (post)realist fiction. In my survey of contemporary weird fiction, we’ve already seen two novels that participate in the “Lovecraft revival.” The Ballad of Black Tom participates in the Lovecraft universe; in Lovecraft Country, Lovecraft is portrayed as a racist writer of wicked good proto-sci-fi. The Night Ocean takes a different approach to Lovecraft and his world than either of these novels, which are decidedly generic. The Night Ocean is entirely realist. It belongs to that category of weird fiction that makes it such an interesting genre today—the merger of the fantastic with something like “true crime.” This sort of fantastic tale has been with us from the start: Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” and Brockden-Brown’s Weiland, as well as Poe’s Pym are good examples. Although Lovecraft and his followers emphasize the presence of a “supernatural” element, many of the best twentieth-century weird novels approach the uncanny, strange, odd, queer, and bizarre from within a realistic world that never quite sees the intrusion of a supernatural element. To use Todorov’s categories, such stories tilt toward the “uncanny” rather than the “marvelous.” James’s “The Jolly Corner,” Jackson’s “The Summer People,” Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (reviewed below), most of Aickman’s stories, Oates’ Mysteries of Winterthurn and Mielville’s The City & The City are just the most obvious examples of different ways modern writers achieve weirdness without recourse to the Great Old Ones. The Night Ocean is one such story.

Queering Lovecraft with Weird Metafiction

The first half of The Night Ocean  plays intensely with inter- and meta-fictional worlds. I have discussed the importance of this mode in previous posts. Like Poe, Lovecraft, and contemporaries like Langan, LaFarge pursues his metafictional world-hoping in a melancholic vein. But, like The Ballad of Black Tom and Lovecraft Country, he traditional generic conventions regarding the identity of the protagonists. The novel’s narrated by a New York psychoanalyst, a white woman named Marina Willett. Her (possibly deceased) husband, an African-American freelance reporter named Charles, had recently received some fame for his profiles of the “almost famous.” His stories bring to life the hopes and travails of those who dedicated their lives to ideas that never took off. His final and most successful project attempted to expose H. P. Lovecraft’s sexuality: was the Lovecraft that we know today (with all his flaws more or less intact) asexual–as most biographies portray him–or a practicing homosexual who remained closeted in the otherwise minutely detailed letters on which his biographies are based? Immediately before the novel begins, Charles has checked himself into a mental health facility in New England (an Arkham Asylum, as it were), then apparently checked himself out, hitch-hiked to the forest, and walked into a lake. His clothes are found on the shore, but no body is recovered. Attempting to discover what happened to her husband, Marina traces Charles’s attempt to trace the “truth” of Lovecraft’s sexuality. This sets up an intensely metafictional narrative, with three or four layers or frames existing one within the other. We have Marina’s account, Charles’s notes, Lovecraft’s texts, and Lovecraft’s life (as interpreted by Charles and others, from the texts). Into this mix, brilliantly, La Farge throws another text—his version of Lovecraft’s famous hyperstitial object, the Necronomicon. (If you don’t know, the Necronomicon is the obscene bible of Lovecraft’s mythos. References are made to this mother of all Black Magic texts in numerous stories, and the book was then referenced by other pulp weirdos (Robert E. Howard, for example), thus setting in motion a metatextual phenomenon that ultimately results (so far) in copies of the wicked book available for purchase online.)

Charles discovers Lovecraft’s Erotonomicon: a diary detailing sexual encounters with various young men, but especially Robert Barlow, a real-world teenage fan whom real-life Lovecraft visited on several occasions. Lovecraft’s actual letters and biographies tell us that the notoriously reclusive writer spent several weeks or more at Barlow’s parent’s house in Florida and made the teenager executive of his estate. They collaborated on a half-dozen stories, including “The Night Ocean,” from which La Farge’s novel takes its title. In La Farge’s novel, we learn that the story, which describes a young artist’s glimpse of a merman–”a swimming thing emerged beyond the breakers. The figure may have been that of a dog, a human being, or something more strange”–can be interpreted as an expression of Barlow’s and/or Lovecraft’s “obscene” desire. In numerous excerpts from the diary, Lovecraft refers to himself as “the Old Gent” and refers to his own sex acts as magic rituals. In other words, La Farge creates a frame in which Lovecraft’s stories are quasi-allegories of homosexuality, each of his famous monsters names a different illicit act. His scenes of horror are revealed to be a code for sex with young men, black as well as white, in various hotels and bowers. For example, upon arriving in Jacksonville, Lovecraft meets a boy at his hotel:

No sooner had I got my hat off and my stationery unpacked then he was scratching at the door, insinuating the he knew certain rituals which would turn even the oldest flesh to stone. For $1.25–how they are cheap down here! No morals, I suppose, to pay the price of–I had an Ablo and two Nether Gulfs. That showed him what old flesh can do! At least when warmed by the Florida sun . . . The imp limped out round-eyed, and offered to return in the morning with another of his brotherhood. (36)

A footnote (one of the novel’s delights are numerous footnotes, some meant to be from editors of the Erotonomicon, some from Marina) supposes that “Nether Gulfs” refers to “Active anal sex,” but notes that “Lovecraft refers to that act elsewhere as ‘the Outer Spheres,’ but, confusingly, he also uses this second term to mean orgasm” (36). In La Farge’s novel, the Erotonomicon is itself the weird object—the impossible thing that so often acts as a portal to another dimension. Reading allows us to see the “fairy lands” in more ways than one. Charles is trying to determine if the whole thing is a hoax or not; Marina is trying to determine the same thing, but filtered through her fear for her husband’s safety and sanity.

As the above passage suggests, Lovecraft’s sexuality is filtered through that of William S. Burroughs–whose iconoclasm, misogyny, dour conservatism, preference for old-fashioned suits and “gentlemanly” manners, and acerbic skepticism suggest a strong corollary to Lovecraft’s slightly earlier, slightly pulpier, immediately less successful attempts at the sort of grotesque, queer romances both writers did well. In La Farge’s novel, the boy knows the Old Gent’s desires at a glance, playing on the idea of a subcultural system of signification that straight readers have missed, while also fantasizing about a queer subculture whose speech is uninflected by ambiguity. The novel’s premise of discovering encoded homosexuality is sublimated into an erotics of intertextuality, as we follow Marina’s search for his missing husband, Charles’s pursuit of the truth behind the Erotonomicon, and Lovecraft’s pursuit of young (but willing) Robert Barlow.The result is an intensity of symbolic slippage reminiscent of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tales.

At least since Hoffmann’s Tomcat Muir, one strand of weird fiction concentrates aesthetic energy upon a deconstruction or deviation of the mimetic relation between fact and fiction in realist literature. Because it’s not a weird tale, Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Roget” may help isolate the aesthetic tension I wish to focus on here.

This tension exists between the real world, as constructed in the fictional text, and the fictional world of the text. Obviously, all texts that deploy realism construct a world that the reader recognizes as standing in for reality. The real world so created may or may not correspond to our reality, but we take it to correspond to someone’s reality, and that reality to be continuous with our own, however removed in space and time. Thus, for example, when I read Madam Bovary, I assume that Emma’s world and my own everyday reality exist in the same universe, separated only by normative space/time. I know, of course, that Flaubert’s portrait of Bovary’s world is a fiction, but this is precisely the element of disbelief that I suspend in order to enjoy the novel’s intense realism. Something weird occurs when this ordinary disposition toward realism is skewed by the fictional narrative. In the case of “Marie Roget,” Dupin pokes holes in the real-life investigation into the death of Mary Rogers by deconstructing newspaper reports; his fiction turns the scientific investigation against itself, discovering clues in the lacunae of official inquiry. The fictional tale inserts itself into the real world more directly than one finds in the realism of Flaubert (or Austen, or most other literary realists). It blurs traditional demarcations between the reader’s factual world and fiction’s mimetic relationship to it, by proposing that the fictional protagonist has an “answer” to the real-world police investigation that exceeds the investigation’s ability to solve the mystery. It suspends the suspension of disbelief normally operative in literary realism. And this is precisely the weird element of the story; although all of Poe’s Dupin stories are “tales of ratiocination,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget” is not like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” or “The Purloined Letter”; without a proper conclusion, it fails to maintain the formula for detective fiction Poe is inventing. It is, I would argue, much weirder than those stories because it’s focus is on the (de)construction of parallel realities.

As I’ve suggested, this anti-normative stance to mimetic realism comes into existence alongside realism, most notably in Cervantes and Sterne. E. T. A. Hoffmann brings this principle into the aesthetic regime. It plays an important role in Wieland and is the organizing principle of Poe’s Pym. Lovecraft and the other writers of weird fiction follow Poe’s lead. In the first half of his novel, La Farge has provided a new version of this conceit. He has updated the weird hoax by situating Lovecraft the author at the center of an investigation that treats the impossible manuscript as real. This works so well precisely because Lovecraft invented numerous fictional texts, not to mention an entire university (Miskatonic, in the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts). More than fifteen of its faculty–biologists, doctors, folklorists, geologists, psychologists, zoologists– glimpse a pantheon of aliens–Dagon, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, and of course the infamous Cthulhu. The entire device, operating across multiple stories, serves as a kind of veracity machine, which of course confronts the impossibility of squaring their evidence with known theories of the universe.

La Farge’s novel obviously “outs” Lovecraft, but it complicates the politics of this act by situating it within another story—that of the emergence of fan fiction and the roots of sci-fi “geekdom.” In queering Lovecraft, the novel makes a kind of laughing jab at readers who would prefer to think of these fantasies as exercises in “pure” (i.e., asexual / sublimated / fantastical) imagination. But it’s also an ode to the formation of a homosocial subculture that is “discovered” through Lovecraft’s letters and diary. References to the real world grow more intense as Marina traces her husband’s research into Robert Barlow. The real-life Barlow transcribed many of Lovecraft’s manuscripts before studying anthropology at several universities. Specializing in Nahuatl, he took a position at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. His prodigious scholarship earned him a Rockefeller Foundation grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He chaired the Department of Anthropology at Mexico City College,  before committing suicide in 1951, apparently because his homosexuality was about to be exposed. Among his students was William S. Burroughs, who wrote to Ginsberg of the “queer” professor’s death. Burroughs is one of many real-world characters that show up as we learn of Barlow’s life among early science-fiction fans in New York and radical artists in Mexico. With intense detail, La Farge imagines scenes drawn from Barlow’s biography. As a memerber of the “Futurians,” a proto-Marxist avant-garde sci-fi club, Barlow joins Donald Wollheim, Frederik Pohl, Robert “Doc” Lowndes and other writers and publishers for the first World Science Fiction Convention, held in New York in July, 1939. The story of their attempt to wrest science fiction away from “the fascists” is written with joyful intensity. They design costumes and print manifestos in a beat New York apartment:

Pohl took the cutout fabric to the window and sewed up the legs of Lowndes’s suit by hand, but we had all overlooked the fact that Lowndes was three-dimensional. He hopped around with one leg in the space suit, one out. “What are you people doing?” asked Wollheim, who had just come in. He had been in Pohl’s bedroom, typing up a leaflet with the Futurians’ demands, to be handed out at the convention. “We need a steamroller to flatten Lowndes,” Pohl said. “We need s-s-someone who knows how to s-sew,” said Michel. “Forget the costumes,” Wollheim said [. . .] He handed a mimeograph stencil to Michel. “I figure we need two hundred copies.” Over by the window, Pohl dropped a cigarette into the paint can. “Is paint flammable?” he asked no one in particular. (256)

Here is a cast of real-world people, portrayed as characters whose lives can be reconstructed through a combination of actual and imaginary documents. La Farge seems to be working closely with the real-world archive of documents (letters, biographies, literary histories), but these have been made to reveal far more than they do. Any historical fiction might do the same, but here the interplay between factual and fictional reality is continually thematized. It is as though the impossible addition to the real-world archive—the Erotonomicon—casts a spell upon our reality, revealing a “fairy” world of queer affect that was previously hidden from view. The geeky banter between the boys in this hotel room—engaged in a collective effort to wrest fantasy away from the fascists—recreates a nuanced circulation of desire between what can and can’t be spoken. As fictional characters, these young men share a common love of sci-fi; it has brought them together into a burgeoning but still uncertain alliance—the occasion for Pohl’s wittiness and Wollheim’s practicality. Their growing affection for each other is overshadowed by Lovecraft’s stature within the group: he represents the queer outside to their homosociality.  

Weird Sexuality

It is commonly understood (in biographies and critical accounts) that Lovecraft sublimated an intensely repressed sexuality into the glimpses/scenes/images of “cosmic horror” for which he is known. In his introduction to Alone with the Horrors, Ramsey Campbell makes passing reference to this aspect of Lovecraft’s writing. Campbell’s early attempts are weird fiction are represented in this anthology by “The Tower of Yuggoth,” which was published in a fanzine, participates in the Lovecraft universe, and clumsily reproduces the Old Gent’s style. As Campbell puts it, “At the time it felt very much like the start of my career as a writer; now it looks more like a phase [. . .] At least it’s eldritch—it keeps saying as much—but it also offers cackling tress and curse-muttering streams. [. . .] And watch out for those peculiar erections in the woods! I used the term in utter innocence, not then having experienced any of them while awake. No doubt a Christian Brotherly promise of hell if one encouraged such developments helped” (11-12). This retrospection combines several feelings: the embarrassment of imitation mingles with the shame of sexual innocence. “Eldritch” and “erection” become not-quite interchangeable signifiers of an innocence that finds more than it bargained for in fanzine imitation. This weird sexuality—not exactly the same as queer sexuality, but closely aligned in its “decoding” of ambivalently-oriented signifers—exposes a vulnerability that La Farge explores as sci-fi fandom, and which Campbell, in his stories, equates with early science-fiction, but also the work of queer counterculture authors, including Genet and Burroughs.

Indeed, the most vociferous criticism of Lovecraft in the twenty-first century is launched at his sexuality, rather than his racism (which tends to be excused by his biographers). The most obvious example of the public shaming is Charles Baxter’s review of The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft in the December 18, 2014 issue of the New York Review of Books. Baxter targets the fantasies of “young men,” whose love of horror, he argues, is commensurate with their desire, in college creative writing classes, “to concoct gruesome narratives” full of “Mayhem, awkward sentences, paper-thing characterizations.” In Baxter’s view, this bad (i.e., pulp) style is linked to the two most obvious / cliched signifiers of weird fiction in the Lovecraftian vein: “But always there are the aliens, organic or machinelike or both, and always the accompanying rage and revulsion.” Baxter’s critique of Lovecraft hinges upon the association he makes between bad style, fantasy narrative, and adolescence:

Fiction like Lovecraft’s can be brutally hypnotic; the young reader, intellectually undefended and easily shaken, enters the writer’s fear-drenched universe and can’t easily get out of it. The mood of unappeasable, apocalyptic menace gradually overcomes those who are unprepared for it. Though sometimes stagy, the intensity in Lovecraft’s stories does not seem fake. Closing the book, the initiate tries to find other readers who were similarly spellbound. A cult is formed, as if to combat post-traumatic stress. From generation to generation the cult grows.

In this and other passages, Lovecraft’s narratives seduce young (white male) readers through a mixture of campy (“stagy”) and less mediated stimulation. These young men are susceptible to the sensual indoctrination of Lovecraft’s prose, and soon, “spellbound,” find themselves in a very strange cult: one that “grows” “from generation to generation,” “as if to combat post-traumatic stress.” In it’s crudest form, the association between male libido and genre fiction that Baxter descries merely repeats the hysteria around comic books in the 1950s, or music lyrics in the 1980s: a fear that popular fictions will cause the nation’s youth to develop collective fantasies that will erode public morality. But again, this reaction is particularly interesting in the context of weird fiction, which has focused attention quite precisely on the power of fiction to hypnotize its readers and transport them to a “universe” for which they are “unprepared.” Baxter has merely named the plot of many weird tales, from Hoffmann’s “The Golden Flower Pot” to The Night Ocean.

Matt Keeley, reviewing the novel for, is right to observe that “While it hasn’t been marketed as such, La Farge may have written the first great novel of fandom.” In The Night Ocean, we get gleeful glimpses of Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, and Robert Bloch, alongside those mentioned above. The book tours a circuit of fandom, with Lovecraft as the sublime object of this desire. One of the book’s best details is young Bobby Barlow’s bedroom closet, where he keeps his collection of pulp magazines. The closet is named Yoh-Vombis, after a story by Lovecraft’s colleague Clark Ashton Smith called “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis.” In the Erotonomicon, Lovecraft first propositions Barlow while they sit in the closet, thumbing through a fanzine:

I could help myself no longer, and asked whether there might be a secret panel in the back of this closet which led to another closet, where he kept the truly accursed volumes of his collection. He professed not to understand what I meant: was I looking for something by Charles Fort? Yet I thought that in the back of his eyes–which are pale brown, by the way, and much magnified by his glasses–I saw some tremor of interest. (37)

In this excerpt from Lovecraft’s (fictional) diary, the first glimmer of a deeply repressed flirtation (which in the novel will eventually lead them to sex-filled afternoons on the banks of a lake behind Barlow’s house) proposes an uneasy alliance between signifiers of fan culture and eroticism. The closeted discourse exists within a closet in the fictional world because, as in the actual world, weird / fantastic / sci-fi pulp magazines were frowned upon as developing an unmanly reading habit. Like fairy stories, they may be acceptable for children, but should be given up upon achieving sexual maturity. The negotiation of this shame masks and yet makes a space for the negotiation of sexual shame. Because all of this is revealed within multiple narrative frames, with an emphasis upon the effort to piece together a coherent story about what happened—what happened to Charles? What happened to Barlow?—the reader participates in the (re)construction of a fictional world that parallels the fan’s dedication to the author as (false, wicked, sinful) idol.

Return to Realism

The first two-thirds of La Farge’s novel are delightful. But the playfulness borrowed from the early life of science fiction fades in the novel’s tedious final act. Although much less enjoyable, the novel’s final section is interesting for its repudiation of the dance of metatextual and queer signification that has been so well established. Simply thumbing through the book reveals the difference. The first several hundred pages are full of journal entries, footnotes, transcripts of interviews and twitter feeds. The second half settles into much more conventional prose, with almost no intertextuality. Similarly, the story shifts away from real-world characters to focus upon a fictional character named Leo Spinks, whose life-story takes us to small-town Canada, the recently liberated Belsen concentration camp, and suburban New York. Without giving too much away, the second half “undoes” the first half. It replaces the queer Lovecraft with accounts of Spinks’ straight marriages, and replaces the fandom with sober portraits of holocaust survivors and bitter housewives.

To me, this swerve feels like a retreat from the pleasures of weirdness. It exposes the century-old distinction between modern literature and genre fiction. Had the novel gone the other way–bringing us further into Lovecraft’s “atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces”–it would have committed itself to the low-brow plots of pulp stories. Instead, La Farge contains his horrors within the bounds of historical realism. Writing for the Washington Independent Review of Books, David Z. Morris, regards this straightening-out of the weirdness as a positive feature of the novel. The Night Ocean, he writes, is “happily free of any version of Lovecraft’s own iconic creations. This separates it from a rather pathetic subgenre of work that waves a lot of tentacles around and calls it ‘homage,’ [. . .] the core achievement is darkly sublime, a translation of the cosmic insanity of Lovecraft’s work back into the human realm.” J. W. McCormak agrees; in a review for Culture Trip, he observes that La Farge’s novel “returns Lovecraft and his ambiguous legacy to the world as we know it, which is, oh yes, much more horrible than any ‘Colour of Space’ or squamous Cthulhu.” Why do these readers approve of the novel’s turn to real-world horrors—the Holocaust–over fictional confrontations with the fantastic? In the first half, La Farge suggests that Lovecraft’s barely discernible monsters allow us to catch glimpses of what Freud (in a phrase Lovecraft would love) called “polymorphous perversity.” Our infantile fears and desires are inseparable and infinitely malleable; “growing up” requires the separation, repression, and straightening out of these feelings, to produce a subject that fits into social norms. In this sense, The Night Ocean “matures” from a work of fan fiction into an adult novel. But the maturation turns away from homosocial and homosexual desire, expressed through the sharing of fictions, toward a world where reality, anchored by historical trauma, occasions a heterosexual drama.

In my previous post, on Langan’s The Fisherman, I sketched some of weird fiction’s position within the literary field; I argued that fantastic tales deserve their name in part because they don’t conform to the conventional logic of taste that distinguishes between bohemian autonomy, bourgeois realism, and generic sensationalism. Langan’s attempt at psychological realism fulfills weird fiction’s promise of a procession of melancholic narratives, while failing to provide what amounts to bohemian autonomy: the promise of style for its own sake (which sake is closely bound to realism, as Bourdieu suggests, but motivated by a “pure” aesthetic—le mot juste).

La Farge is an accomplished stylist; he does well what Langan does less well with diction and syntax. The first half of The Night Ocean also does well what Langan does well: it frames a series of melancholic narratives, one within the other, to produce a densely weird tale. Then in the end, the weird tale is undone, to be replaced by historical realism. This, curiously enough, has rather dire consequences for the prose which animated the first part of La Farge’s novel. It’s as though the turn to historical realism—the realism of trauma, rather than of exploration—deadens the prose in its effort to provide literary heft.