I hate three star reviews, the critic’s version of a “meh.” When you pour your heart and soul into writing a book, you hope to inspire something. Preferably joy, horror, love, etc., depending on the genre. If not that, loathing works. A one star review means someone was passionate about your book. I’m as likely to buy a novel on the basis of a well-written one star review as I am a similarly passionate five star review. But three stars? Meh.
As much as I hate to say it, The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge falls squarely in that three star range for me. It shouldn’t have been this way.
The Night Ocean is part of the new hotness that is re-imagining or re-purposing Lovecraft with an ironic twist that would have horrified the late master of the unseen forces that bend men’s fates. The Ballad of Black Tom, which I loved, does this with racism. Lovecraft Country, currently on my reading list, does the same. The Night Ocean tackles the dubious subject of Lovecraft’s sexuality. This, I was not expecting. I was also skeptical, and remain so, that this is a subject that’s all that interesting. We know that Lovecraft was married. His wife Sonia Greene called him “an adequately excellent lover.” (Talk about a three star review). But other than that, Lovecraft is thought of as decidedly a-sexual, too isolated from humanity to enjoy love or its attendant physical pursuits.
The Night Ocean posits that Lovecraft may have been gay and may have had an illicit affair with a young protege, Robert Barlow, who authored a short story of the same name as our novel. The husband of our protagonist sets off to discover the truth, and in doing so gets himself tangled in a story of mystery and deceit that takes the entire novel to unravel.
Now you may be asking yourself, where’s the horror? And that would be precisely the problem. I stumbled upon The Night Ocean while reading an article entitled “8 Lovecraftian Tales for Those Who Don’t Want to Read Lovecraft which I was pleasantly surprised to see included That Which Should Not Be. Since the article’s author clearly has good taste, I decided to pick up some of the other books on the list as well. The Night Ocean was one of them.
The Night Ocean starts off well, promising an almost House of Leaves–style story within a story, where nothing is ever quite what it seems and the author may not be completely reliable. A couple biographies later and the book was over, without anything all that Lovecraftian ever having happened.
I think it was my expectations that ruined it for me. The book is well written, with all the literary fiction quality one would expect from a book stamped with the “A novel” disclaimer. But it’s not horror. Not at all. So for me, it was just…meh.