From the award-winning author and New Yorker contributor, a riveting novel about secrets and scandals, psychiatry and pulp fiction, inspired by the lives of H.P. Lovecraft and his circle.
A tour-de-force of storytelling, The Night Ocean follows the lives of some extraordinary people: Lovecraft, the most influential American horror writer of the 20th century; Barlow, a seminal scholar of Mexican culture who killed himself after being blackmailed for his homosexuality; his student, future Beat writer William S. Burroughs; and L.C. Spinks, a kindly Canadian appliance salesman and science-fiction fan—the only person who knows the origins of The Erotonomicon, purported to be the intimate diary of Lovecraft himself.
Read the excerpt below, or download it here.
My husband, Charlie Willett, disappeared from a psychiatric hospital in the Berkshires on January 7, 2012. I say disappeared because I don’t believe he’s dead, although that would be the reasonable conclusion. Charlie’s army jacket, jeans, shoes, socks, and underwear (though, strangely, not his shirt) were all found at the edge of Agawam Lake the day after he left the hospital. The police say Charlie’s footprints led to the edge of the lake, and nobody’s footprints led away. Even if Charlie could somehow have left the lake without leaving tracks, they say, it’s hard to see how he would have survived long enough to reach shelter. According to the National Weather Service, the overnight low temperature in Stockbridge was 15 degrees, and Charlie didn’t have an extra set of clothes: the girl who gave him a ride swears he wasn’t carrying anything. What’s more, no one denies that Charlie was suicidal. The last time I saw him, in Brooklyn, he told me he’d taken a handful of Ambien, just to see what would happen. What happened was, he slept for twelve hours, had a dizzy spell in the shower, and sprained his ankle. “My life is becoming a sad joke,” he said, “except there’s no one around to laugh at it.” He looked at me entreatingly. I told him there was nothing funny about an Ambien overdose. It could kill you, if you took it with another depressant. “Thanks, Miss Merck Manual,” Charlie said. “I’m still your wife,” I said, “and you’re scaring me. If you really want to hurt yourself, you should be in the hospital.” To my surprise, Charlie asked, “Which hospital?” I thought for a moment, then I told him about the place in the Berkshires.
Two days later, Charlie was on the bus to Stockbridge. He called me that evening. “I feel like I’m in high school again, Mar,” he said. “The food is terrible, and everybody’s on drugs. I nearly had a panic attack, trying to figure out who to sit with at dinner. Who are the cool kids in an insane asylum? The bulimics look great, but the bipolars make better conversation.” “Sounds like you’ll fit right in,” I said, and Charlie laughed. He sounded like himself, for the first time in months. What had he sounded like before that? Like himself, but falling down a well in slow motion: each time I saw him, his voice was fainter and somehow more echo-y. That’s something Charlie might have said; normally, I am more cautious with my descriptions. I have never heard anyone fall down a well. “Are you on drugs?” I asked. “I start tomorrow,” Charlie said. “Wanted to call you tonight, in case there’s anything you want to ask before they erase my mind.” “Don’t joke,” I said. I thought about it. “What’s your favorite nut?” I asked. “Oh, Mar,” he said, “you know the answer to that one.”
Charlie called again two days after that and told me they had him on 2 milligrams of risperidone—which was more than I would have given him, but never mind—and it made him woozy. “But the characters, Mar,” he said, “the characters!” He was taking notes in his journal, for an essay he planned to write about his downfall. “Take it easy,” I said. “If they think your journal is antisocial, they might confiscate it.” “I am,” Charlie said. “I’ve only got enough energy to write for, like, five minutes a day. The rest of the time I watch Lost on DVD.” He didn’t talk about his therapy, but I didn’t expect him to. We had always respected each other’s privacy. “How long are they going to keep you?” I asked. Charlie said, “They’re saying a couple of weeks.” I said I would visit as soon as I could, probably the next weekend. Then, afraid that Charlie would draw the wrong conclusion, I clarified: “I just want to know you’re all right, and that you aren’t making the doctors miserable.” Charlie said it was his job to make the doctors miserable. Then he said, “Just kidding. My job right now is to make a world I can live in.” I wondered if he’d picked that phrase up in therapy, and what dopey therapist could have fed it to him. What Charlie needed was exactly not to make a world. He needed to figure out how to live in the one that exists. All of that took probably two seconds. “I’m happy that you’re doing well,” I said, and Charlie said, “Thanks.” We hung up.
That was on January fifth. On the seventh, Charlie forced the lock on his door with a bit of plastic, climbed a cyclone fence, and hitched a ride with a Simon’s Rock student named Jessica Ng. He told her he was meeting friends at Monument Mountain, for an Orthodox Christmas celebration, and she, the fool, dropped him on the shoulder of Route 7. He waved, cheerfully, she said, and walked into the forest. It’s all in the police report. For the police, and Charlie’s mother, and more or less everyone else, the last sentence of the story will be written in the summer, when Agawam Lake warms up, and Charlie’s body rises to the surface. Only I do not believe he is dead.
This, you’ll tell me, is pure wish fulfillment. I feel guilty that I didn’t save Charlie from suicide, so I’ve constructed a fantasy in which his suicide didn’t happen. It’s possible. Just because I am a psychotherapist doesn’t mean that I’m immune to delusional thinking, and I do feel guilty. I lie awake wondering whether, if I’d acted differently, Charlie would still be here. If I hadn’t pushed him away in that last conversation; if I had been more patient, more understanding; if I hadn’t moved out when I learned about Lila. Or, I tell myself, because I was patient, was understanding, maybe my mistake was to keep my thoughts too much to myself. When Charlie came back from Mexico City with evidence of Robert Barlow’s miraculous survival, I could have told him the evidence didn’t add up. When he went to see Barlow—the person he thought was Barlow—I might have said what I felt, which was, that the story was too good to be true. Even though I know what Charlie would have said: “Mar, you’re being mistrustful. I know it’s hard for you to remember, but there are people out there who aren’t crazy.” And I would have sulked, because I hated when Charlie called me mistrustful. It made me feel small, and it wasn’t true. My real mistake, I tell myself, when midnight comes around, and I get out of bed to drink a glass of wine and listen to the BBC, my mistake was that I believed Charlie too much. Then I remind myself that I loved Charlie because he was so unbearably easy to believe.
This is not the story of our marriage. Still, I want to note some things that happened early on, because they make what happened later easier to understand. Charlie and I were set up. His friend Eric was dating myfriend Grace, and so, in accordance with the law that every young paired-off person in New York City has to pair off his or her friends, Grace threw a party in her Hester Street studio, and Charlie and I were invited. I didn’t want to go. This was in 2004, when I was doing my residency at Weill Cornell, and I reserved my free time for sleep or reading the novels that piled up on my little glass-topped table. Also, the night of the party was very cold. But then I thought, Marina, if you don’t leave the house, you’re going to spend the rest of your life alone, or, worse, you’re going to marry a doctor. So I put on about six layers of clothes, and, feeling like one of the old Star Wars action figures Charlie collected—I didn’t know about them yet, but now, eight years later, Charlie images are what come to mind—I took a cab to the Lower East Side. As soon as I got to the party, I wished I hadn’t come. Thirty of Grace’s art school friends were crammed into her studio, holding drinks close to their chests and shouting at one another over a mix CD. It was like being in college again, and I felt a kind of despair, watching all those people pretend that time did not exist. But it was so cold out that I didn’t go home right away, and while I was leaning against the wall, wondering if I had changed since college, Grace came up to me and shouted, “Marina! I need your help! I left my inhaler somewhere, and now I can’t find it.”
With a familiar mild irritation—Grace was always losing things, always asking for help—I headed toward the bathroom. My path was blocked by a large plastic rabbit, spray-painted gold, and while I stood before it, wondering what it was doing there, a boy asked if I knew where the rabbit had come from. “Probably from a gallery in Williamsburg,” I said, and the boy, who was, of course, Charlie, laughed. He told me he had seen a rabbit just like this one, once, in Memphis, and he’d discovered that it came from a chain of restaurants called the Happy Rabbit. The chain was founded by a Chinese immigrant named William Lee, and the amazing thing, Charlie said, although I didn’t know his name yet, the amazing thing, he said, was that Mr. Lee actually served rabbit,because he believed that, in the future, nuclear war would make it impossible to raise beef cows or even sheep. “Like many other people,” Charlie said, “he was preparing for a future that never happened.” “Or at least one that hasn’t happened yet,” I said. Charlie grinned. It was as if he’d thrown a football into some trees, and I had not only caught it but thrown it back to him. “Actually,” he said, “I’m not sure this is one of the Happy Rabbit rabbits. But it could be.” He was skinny and stooped, with a scraggly goatee and hair clipped close to his skull. His skin was light brown. He wore a green army jacket over a blue paisley shirt and red pants: a motley outfit, I thought, as if he were protecting himself by playing the fool. He wasn’t the man I had dreamed of meeting, but my dreams were confused, and the men I did meet were often good-looking jerks. And then it was midnight, and everyone else had gone out to a bar. We were still standing beside the rabbit. Suddenly, Charlie asked, “Is it all right if I kiss you?” I said he might as well. “What do you mean, I might as well?” he asked. “Well,” I said, “no one knows when that nuclear war’s going to show up.”
But this isn’t the story of our marriage. It’s not the story of how quickly Charlie moved in with me and stood Han Solo and Darth Vader on my bookshelf, in front of D. W. Winnicott and George Eliot. It isn’t the story of how we got married at City Hall, with Charlie’s mother and my brothers as witnesses, because my parents refused to come down from Connecticut to watch me marry a schvartze; or how we posed in front of a photomural of the Statue of Liberty, and Charlie remarked that the statue was exactly the wrong symbol for people who were getting married, and I punched him in the ribs. What’s important is that I loved Charlie because he made life lively. When I met him, he worked as a fact-checker at the Village Voice, and in his free time, he wrote profiles of people who could have been famous, or should have been famous but weren’t, because of some stubbornness in their character, or some flaw in the world. He didn’t make a lot of money, but that didn’t matter, because I was making enough. After my residency, I was an attending for two years at Mount Sinai, then I went into private practice, doing analytic psychotherapy, which I believe in, and which I’m good at.
What Charlie was good at was immersing himself in obscure and beautiful facts. He loved the people he wrote about in a way that I sometimes envied but would have been afraid to imitate. As a therapist, you get to care deeply about your patients, but you can’t love them without sacrificing the neutrality that makes therapy work. For Charlie, there was no limit. When he was writing about an employee of the Oakland Department of Motor Vehicles who had invented a purely rational language and was, so far as anyone knew, its only speaker, he learned the language. He and the DMV employee conversed in it; I listened with amazement as Charlie clicked and clucked into his phone, scribbling notes on a steno pad balanced on his knee. But when I read his profile of the language inventor, I understood why he had put so much effort into the research: I could see the DMV employee standing at the breakfast bar of his bachelor’s apartment (he’d invented his language, he said, as a way to make sense of things after a bad divorce), eating a Baby Ruth, and licking chocolate from his fingers. “Was that what you were talking about? Candy?” I asked. “Uh, no,” Charlie said. “Actually, I intuited he was a Three Musketeers kind of guy.” “You intuited?” “Yeah,” Charlie said, “sometimes, when you get deep enough into someone’s head, you can kind of see things. It’s like you become them, and you’re seeing the world through their eyes. Of course, I asked him about it, after I wrote the first draft. Baby Ruth. I was pretty close, right?”
Why was Charlie the way he was? As we got to know each other, I couldn’t help coming up with some hypotheses. His parents were both professors at Columbia, his father in English, his mother in philosophy. When Charlie was ten, his father, who happened to be black, was accused of sexually harassing several of his female graduate students. He cried racism, but Charlie’s mother, who happened to be white, left him anyway. Charlie’s father died of a brain tumor before the charges were resolved. These events, coming one after another, sent Charlie into what I would have called a serious depression; he called it his passage through the underworld. He lost interest in doing anything, and in seeing anyone he hadn’t known before his father died. The only exception to this rule was Dungeons & Dragons, which he started playing when he was twelve and played more or less nonstop until he turned seventeen. “I had the little figurines and everything,” he said. “Even my nerd friends were freaked out. I had to play in the back room of a hobby shop in Midtown, with these Asian kids from Stuyvesant, and some guys in their thirties who were probably repressed sexual predators. But that was how I met Eric—he was as messed up as I was, or more so. We used to take the bus together, to D&D tournaments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and so on. We’d stay up all night, come back on the bus in the morning, and go straight to school. It was like we were on drugs, except that we didn’t even drink. And we did super well in the tournaments. There was this one time, we were playing through the Tomb of Horrors, and Eric and I were the last two survivors.” “So what happened?” I asked, trying not to smile. “I killed him,” Charlie said. “The first-place prize was a twenty-dollar gift certificate. A man has his priorities.” “I meant, why did you stop playing,” I said. Charlie blushed. “I went to Princeton,” he said, “and met a girl named Megan, who was into Pablo Neruda. Long story short, I turned over a new leaf and became the outstanding writer of nonfiction whom you see before you.”