I can’t remember the last time I thought of H.P. Lovecraft or read one of his weird horror tales. But then Samantha Bee recently invoked Cthulhu on her TV show, displaying his tentacled visage on the screen. And then I picked up Paul La Farge’s new novel The Night Ocean (Penguin Press, digital galley), in which the peculiar Lovecraft is a central character, along with his young acolyte Robert Barlow, who lived over near DeLand. Why did the middle-aged writer spend two months in Florida in 1934 with the teen science-fiction fan and then make him his literary executor on his death two years later? Scholars and Lovecraft devotees alike have speculated for years, and La Farge slyly mixes fact and fiction in his wildly entertaining tale of obsession and identity, our need to impose stories on our lives.
In his layered telling, a posthumously published Lovecraft diary depicts a romantic and physical friendship. A hoax is suspected, but freelance writer Charlie Willett believes that the Canadian man behind the diary is actually Barlow, who must have faked his death as a suicide in 1951 in Mexico City. Charlie’s outing of Lovecraft and Barlow eventually lands Charlie in a psychiatric hospital, from which he escapes and disappears, supposedly drowning in a lake. This is actually the story’s beginning, because Charlie’s psychiatrist wife Marcia, who narrates The Night Ocean, doesn’t think Charlie is dead and so begins retracing his links to Lovecraft and company, fitering truth from lie. This may sound complicated, and it is, but the nesting doll-like narrative reads like a head-spinning detective story. Oh, the twists, the turns! Still, trying to figure out this puzzle box could lead to Cthulhu — oh, the horror, the horror! Enjoy.
Charlie Lovett, author of The Bookman’s Tale and First Impressions, writes diverting bibliomysteries that playfully blend historical fact with inspired fiction. In The Lost Book of the Grail (Viking, digital galley), a 40-year-old British academic who grew up on the tales of King Arthur has his life upended by a 26-year-old American digital librarian, a missing medieval manuscript and the possibility that the Holy Grail is hidden not in Glastonbury but in Barchester Cathedral. (Yes, Anthony Trollope’s fictional Barchester). Arthur Prescott, who quotes P.G. Wodehouse to himself, is slowly working on a visitor’s guide to Barchester and the treasures of its library, but is hampered by how little is known of its sixth-century founder, Saint Ewolde. Fortunately, Bethany Chase, who has arrived to digitize the library’s ancient manuscripts for a private foundation, turns out to be a fellow Grail enthusiast and first-rate researcher. Together, they may yet save the fortunes and future of the monastery. Onward!
Lovett intersperses their lively contemporary treasure hunt with passages about the monastery’s history and the monks charged with keeping its secrets over the ages as Christianity and then Catholicism pass in and out of favor. As Arthur and Bethany decipher clues and a tentative romance blooms, their discoveries intersect with the historical episodes. Thomas Malory and Tennyson are among those making credible cameos, and their works play into several “Aha!” moments. Nicely grounded in Lovett’s scholarship but not overburdened by it, the story feels authentic, if occasionally farfetched. Maybe it’s just a tall tale, but I’d still like to believe in The Lost Book of the Grail.
Other good novels I’ve read the last month include Kayla Rae Whitaker’s remarkable first novel The Animators (Random House, digital galley), which charts the highs and lows of the friendship between two women with opposite personalities and a shared creative passion; Elinor Lipman’s new comedy of manners On Turpentine Lane (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley), which juggles dysfunctional families, friends and lovers, and which made me chortle; and Nickolas Butler’s heartfelt The Hearts of Men (HarperCollins, digital galley), which introduces eventual hero Nelson Doughty as the 13-year-old bullied bugler at a Wisconsin Boy Scout camp and then follows him through four decades.
Lastly, there’s Dan Chaon’s disturbing Ill Will (Ballantine, digital galley), in which horrific crimes — the possibly ritual slaughter of a family and a series of drownings of young men — are separated by years but linked in the life of a middle-aged therapist. His wife dies of cancer and his younger son slips into heroin addiction after the death of a high school buddy. At the same time, his older brother, wrongly imprisoned for the long-ago murder, is freed, and one of his patients, an ex-cop, becomes obsessed by a phantom serial killer. So many bad things happen in Chaon’s beautifully written story that I thought at one point, “No one is getting out of here alive.” Here’s horror.