After reading all of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction in 1945, Edmund Wilson concluded that there was nothing scary about stories full of words like ‘eerie’, ‘unhallowed’, ‘blasphemous’, ‘infernal’, ‘hellish’ and ‘unholy’, especially when these refer to an ‘invisible whistling octopus’ (the creature appears at the end of the 1928 story ‘The Call of Cthulhu’). But Wilson would have been genuinely frightened to see a volume of Lovecraft’s tales included in the Library of America series he helped to create. Lovecraft’s canonisation is a rebuke to Wilson’s lifelong crusade to keep Literature safe from the contaminating tentacles of science fiction, horror and detective fiction (in another essay he describes Agatha Christie’s prose as having a ‘mawkishness and banality which seem to me literally impossible to read’). But those tidy containers have long since been smashed. The first book Michel Houellebecq published was H.P. Lovecraft: Contre le monde, contre la vie, which describes the stories that made Wilson wince as constituting a ‘gigantic dream machine of astounding breadth and efficacy’.
Lovecraft himself thought of his work as the refined prose of an aristocratic gentleman. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890 into a moderately well-to-do bourgeois family. Three years later his father suffered a psychotic break during a business trip in Chicago: according to S.T. Joshi’s staggeringly thorough I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft (2010), he ran from his hotel room shouting that a maid had insulted him and that his wife (who was at home) was being verbally abused in the room above his. On his return to Providence he was taken to Butler Hospital, where he remained until his death five years later, apparently from complications related to syphilis. Lovecraft’s overprotective mother had a psychotic breakdown too, testifying excitedly to a neighbour about the ‘strange and fantastic creatures’ she saw darting out from behind a building. By this point her only child had become immersed in 18th-century English poetry (especially Pope): an enthusiasm that no doubt played a role in his later affectation of the mannerisms of the period in his writing (‘shew’ for ‘show’ etc). He had a prodigious aptitude for learning, loved the natural sciences and was by his teens writing an amateur astronomy column in which he espoused a particularly severe version of Lucretian atomism. He discovered the Arabian Nights, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, whose style he imitated. Lovecraft’s fiction can often seem like a pastiche of the morbidly concrete side of Poe. In Poe’s ‘Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’, for example, a nearly dead man in a mesmeric trance is reduced to a ‘liquid mass of loathsome – of detestable putridity’. That single clause encapsulates much of Lovecraft’s style. (Wilson, a fan of Poe, found the idea that there might be a resemblance between the two writers ‘one of the many sad signs that nobody any more pays any real attention to writing’.) The comparison is also unavoidable for more empirical reasons: one of Lovecraft’s longest and best stories, the 1936 novella of Antarctic adventure At the Mountains of Madness, is a studious appropriation of Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
Lovecraft’s genteel prose coexisted with an intense racism, and reappraisals of his work have had to square the visionary intensity of the writing with the prejudices of the fearful, paranoid man who produced it. He is in this way (and maybe only in this way) comparable to Wagner. But the music is still extraordinary and something in us ought to recoil from the philistinism that would dismiss the art because the person who made it was a jerk.
Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean is in part a meditation on the question of how we should treat powerful art made by an awful person, ingeniously undertaken as a series of case studies in unhinged fandom. A novel of books within books, it teems with works of fact and fiction, some real, some made up, all wrapped in layers of cryptic scholarship designed to provoke the near Talmudic scrutiny of the devoted fan.First, Lovecraft’s own fictional book, the Necronomicon – a sulphurous grimoire by the ‘mad Arab Abdul Alhazred’ – is matched by the invention of a work called the Erotonomicon. With Eros in place of the Necronomicon’s Thanatos, the Erotonomicon is a diary composed in imitation 18th-century English purportedly detailing Lovecraft’s affair with Robert Barlow, a horror fan, collector and briefly Lovecraft’s literary executor. In fact Lovecraft spent six weeks at the 15-year-old Barlow’s family home in Florida at Barlow’s invitation in 1933. It was an uncharacteristic journey for the reclusive and indoorsy writer, who was 27 years older than Barlow. All this invites La Farge’s fictional elaboration of their affair. Lovecraft is squeamish about sex and Barlow’s first attempt to signal his feelings – he takes Lovecraft’s hand – provokes disgust, followed by a 15-minute lecture on the history of the criminalisation of homosexuality from the Romans to Oscar Wilde. But Lovecraft eventually gives in and one of the many virtuosic inventions of The Night Ocean is the secret code Lovecraft and Barlow (whom he calls ‘Barlovius’) devise for encrypting their doings: they ‘Do an Ebony Boxe’ and ‘Make an Elder Sign’ and ‘Probe Ye Outer Spheres’.
Enter the DIY scholar, non-fiction auteur, horror fan and partially lapsed Lovecraftian Charlie Willett (his name is spliced together from two characters in Lovecraft’s ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’). Charlie is good at ‘immersing himself in obscure and beautiful facts’ and capable of a fandom ‘so refined almost no one knows what [he’s] talking about’. He is also black, a fact of which not too much is made, but which resonates through the book as an implicit complication of Lovecraft’s racism (fandom obeys its own mysterious laws). In search of subjects to write about, Charlie learns of the existence of the Erotonomicon, which he believes to be an authentic work of Lovecraft’s: he writes an exposé-like study of it, which he calls The Book of the Law of Love. Shortly after its publication it is revealed that the Erotonomicon is not Lovecraft’s diary after all but the work of another fan, a certain L.C. Spinks, who created it as a hoax. The whole kerfuffle is reported in the New York Times, HarperCollins cancels plans for a paperback of The Book of the Law of Love, and – his precious research now appearing fraudulent – Charlie vanishes.
The Night Ocean is narrated by Charlie’s wife, Marina, or Mar, as she desperately looks into the circumstances surrounding his disappearance. This requires that she become immersed in Charlie’s reading and writing – she describes Lovecraft’s ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ as a ‘parable on the perils of research’ – and the footnotes she starts to add to her pages read as if someone were treading water in an ever widening ocean of esoteric lore. She eventually visits Spinks, the alleged real author of the Erotonomicon, and conducts a long interview with him about his life, which Spinks prefaces by saying that it is ‘a horror story’. It is hinted that this will involve eldritch Lovecraftian detail about metempsychosis (at one point the novel intimates there may be some ‘transmigration of souls’ at work between Lovecraft, Barlow, Spinks and Charlie), but the horror turns out to be historically real: the concentration camp at Belsen, which Spinks claims to have visited as an American soldier, before improbably marrying a survivor. As Mar goes further down the rabbit hole of Spinks’s life, we begin to feel his story is just a bit too composed, the density of incident a little too finely selected, the shape of the life a bit too picaresque. And indeed Spinks’s backstory turns out to be just more fiction, much to Mar’s anger and embarrassment. It is, then, unsettling when – on vacation in Miami with her family as a break from her perilous research – Mar goes for a swim and ends up living out a tale Spinks told her during the interview about a collaboration between Lovecraft and Barlow called ‘The Night Ocean’, which involves a mysterious creature beckoning a solitary artist out to sea. The title of this final section of the novel – ‘The Navel of the Dream’ – is the only one not borrowed from Lovecraft. It is taken instead from The Interpretation of Dreams, and describes the knot of opacity beyond which dream analysis may go no further.
Far more than an exercise in metafictional mise en abyme, The Night Ocean is full of richly detailed portraits of the various worlds of fandom: from adolescent refuge in Dungeons & Dragons and science-fiction conventions, to the marketing of fan-targeted knick-knacks (‘goth kids with I ♥ Cthulhu pins on the lapels of their frock coats’), to Charlie’s youthful piece in the Village Voice about a man who invents his own language (Charlie learns it well enough to be able to converse in it). Even the flowering of the romance at the centre of the novel is encapsulated in one of these moments of cultural semaphore: Charlie puts a couple of his Star Wars action figures on Mar’s bookshelf in front of copies of George Eliot and D.W. Winnicott, a tableau of arrested geekdom encroaching on the cosy world of the aspirant professional. Because Mar is hopelessly a fan of Charlie’s, it’s painful when he begins to cadge Adderall from her (as a psychotherapist she can write prescriptions), and we start to see him less as earnestly boyish and more as a gifted manipulator. After Mar learns of Lovecraft’s white supremacist beliefs, she refers to him in the jargon of her profession as a ‘problem person’, and it seems appropriate to give Charlie’s brittle brilliance over to a therapist narrator. Just when Mar’s explanatory diagnostics start to feel cloying in their knowingness, you realise that they are a tonal antidote to the frothings of fandom.
There are also numerous walk-on parts for other writers, real and imagined. After a bitter falling out with Lovecraft, Barlow moves to Mexico City, where he becomes a professor of anthropology. One of his students is a louche, loquacious raconteur who Barlow says looked like ‘the filthiest junior partner in a law firm’ and whose name is Bill – i.e. William S. Burroughs. After hundreds of pages of fictional interpolation, it’s dizzying to find out that all of this is true: Barlow did become a professor of anthropology at Mexico City College, Burroughs did move to Mexico City and did enrol on Barlow’s course. When Barlow tells him of his personal acquaintance with Lovecraft, Burroughs recalls having ‘read something by your Lovecraft fellow when I was a kid. Story about a guy who reanimates dead bodies? Real juvenile stuff.’ In another episode, La Farge nails the claustrophobic hotel world of the academic conference when he has a French theorist, Gilles Baron, give a keynote talk on Lovecraft. Baron, who has written a book called H.P. Lovecraft: Prophet of the Posthuman, is perhaps a riff on Houellebecq, though Houellebecq is funnier and more interesting than the pompous, humourless Baron, whose big thesis is that ‘humanity is deliberately preparing the world for the coming of the jellyfish.’ A pendant to the Baron send-up is the green-haired sycophant-groupie Lily, who shows up at the conference eager to have her copy of Prophet of the Posthuman signed by le maître (Charlie has an adulterous fling with her). As for another sort of writer, Twitter trolls, La Farge gets the tone of both the righteous do-gooder and the sociopathic hater. When the hoax behind Charlie’s book starts to blow up, one troll tweets: ‘Someone should get child porn on @charlie_willet’s hard drive and tip the FBI.’
‘While to all fiction is allowed some play of invention, yet, fiction based on fact should never be contradictory to it.’ That’s Melville in 1857 in another work of hoaxes within hoaxes, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (a book every American ought to read just now). Melville’s facetiously propounded principle is taken to delirious extremes in La Farge’s novel. It never stays too long in one narrative mode; there is no single governing convention; horror, science fiction and detective fiction move in and out of focus, like rotating panels in an immense kaleidoscope. The episodes pile up, the books proliferate, the mysteries multiply, and the fun of it all is described in The Night Ocean’s epigraph, among the most overt of its borrowings from Lovecraft: ‘I say to you againe, doe not call up any that you can not put downe.’