The Night Ocean
By Paul Lafarge
385 pages, $27
By Ed Taylor
Cult pulp writer H. P. Lovecraft is shown the love in “The Night Ocean,” the new novel from upstate New York resident Paul Lafarge. It is a curious tribute to the imagination and the alt-Modernist genre of “weird fiction,” and a meditation on metempsychosis — the transmigration of souls.
Although the stage is big here and the work meticulous and richly rendered, the curtain closes on something that feels hermetic and miniaturized, like a teen boy’s obsessively detailed model of Han Solo’s “Millennium Falcon” or some other object of rabid fandom. Maybe not by coincidence, this is a male world of doctrinal schism and fanboy wars, but generations before the Internet. It's balanced perhaps by the fact that the narrator is a contemporary woman, a psychotherapist whose writer husband anchors his drifting soul in an obsession with Lovecraft (1890-1937), an eccentric titan of weird fiction, a genre that presaged science fiction (what’s now called speculative fiction) who has enjoyed a resurgence of interest. Attention has come from international literary figures such as Michel Houellebecque and from his official canonization as a major American writer with “Stories,” a 2005 Library of America volume of his work.
Lovecraft’s fictive world was a chilly, numinous New England linked to parallel black worlds; a stark Puritan veil over hell, other planets, and malign non-human consciousnesses, some embodied and some not, some from this planet, and some not.
That Lovecraftian atmosphere hangs over the story, the tale of the psychotherapist’s quest to explain the apparent suicide of her husband — except there is no body.
So is he dead, or did he merely escape the mess he made when his bestselling bio of a Lovecraft acolyte turns out to be based on a con job, perpetrated on him by a mysterious Canadian who may or may not be the teenaged boy who befriended Lovecraft in the early 20th century and who had a frustrated, fraught disciple's relation — and maybe an affair -- with Lovecraft, and may or may not be the man behind a fake Lovecraft diary that scandalized 1950s America during the McCarthy era.
There are plots within plots, and identity and devotion and 20th century history including the Holocaust, and post-World War II Levittown America all loom big here.
Ultimately, the woven layers don’t quite hold up under their weight. Or, rather, they create a gravity that doesn’t necessarily connect with the ostensible throughline of the story.
The fine-grained rendering of an arguable small side street in the city of modern American literature might not hold up what it’s intended to carry; this is perhaps counterbalanced by the front story of the contemporary wife searching for her presumed dead husband. Whether it’s all enough, only the Magic 8 Ball knows. The story ends in the ocean, at night, but with — metaphorically — a light on shore that might be hope, at the end of a very dark day.
Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo critic, a teacher and the author of the novel "Theo" for young adults.