STARRED REVIEW
March 02, 2017

Drowning in Lovecraftian horror

By Paul La Farge

Paul La Farge has always drawn the thinnest and most permeable line between biographical fact and historical fiction. Both in his previous novels and in a set of poetic dreams he “translated” from a non-existent French poet of the 19th century, La Farge illuminates over and over again the superior strangeness of “real life” over anything he brilliantly devises as a writer of boundless imagination.

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Paul La Farge has always drawn the thinnest and most permeable line between biographical fact and historical fiction. Both in his previous novels and in a set of poetic dreams he “translated” from a non-existent French poet of the 19th century, La Farge illuminates over and over again the superior strangeness of “real life” over anything he brilliantly devises as a writer of boundless imagination.

Now the author has surpassed himself. The Night Ocean is the ultimate crossing of the hazy boundary between reality and fantasy. It unflinchingly and comically diagnoses the emotional wonder and chaos unleashed by any troubled writer who fabricates an evil reality all his own. H.P. Lovecraft was such a person, and this novel is a mighty boon to horror geeks like me who misspent a good portion of our youths reading the pulp fiction of Lovecraft and his unholy minions, and surrendering to the cult of “fandom” that grew up around his bizarre personality and cosmically evil inventions. But La Farge’s novel goes further than celebrating the legacy of this especially deranged and popular storyteller. It is told by a psychotherapist, whose husband’s career and sanity have been destroyed by Lovecraft & Co. For this devastated couple, there are dark boxes within Lovecraft’s dark boxes, forcing a delightfully unsteady movement of the novel toward two associated characters: Lovecraft’s friend (and possible lover) Robert Barlow, who is a richly historical figure, and L.C. Spinks, an entirely unreal figure who becomes diabolically “real” to us, as the novel unfolds layer upon layer of Spinks’ truths and untruths, heartbreaking facts and wild fabrications.

Best of all is the way The Night Ocean addresses the real horror of H.P. Lovecraft’s vile hatefulness against African-Americans, Jews and other minorities. As in Matt Ruff’s recent novel Lovecraft Country (which I also recommend), Lovecraft’s demons are nothing more or less than us.

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The Night Ocean

The Night Ocean

By Paul La Farge
Penguin Press
ISBN 9781101981085

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