Robert H. Barlow’s “The Night Ocean” (1936) has the distinction of being “the last surviving piece of fiction on which Lovecraft is known to have worked.” This according to S.T. Joshi, in his indispensable two volume biography of H.P. Lovecraft, I am Providence (2013). Barlow’s remarkable story can be found at the very end of an anthology of Lovecraft’s revisions and collaborations with various authors, The Horror in the Museum (1970). It is as if the editors of this menagerie of Lovecraftian horror saved the best, or one of the best, for last.
(“The Night Ocean”, along with “The Mound” and the titular “The Horror in the Museum” are probably the strongest stories in the book. The Horror in the Museum is highly recommended to those readers who would like a deeper appreciation of Lovecraft’s influence on other writers. Works in this volume are representative of the first generation of “acolytes of Cthulhu”—see also Robert M. Price’s wonderful 2014 anthology of the same name.)
As with Barlow’s “Till A’ the Seas”, discussed in a recent post, (See The End, by Ar-Ech-Bei and Others.), the original typed manuscript of “The Night Ocean” still exists. It shows Lovecraft’s handwritten edits—estimated to affect no more than 10% of the material, per Joshi. The voice of the text is distinctively not Lovecraft’s, though there is imagery—some fragments of unusual jewelry and a horrifying but indeterminate bit of detritus washed up on shore—that recall some of Lovecraft’s own disturbing visions.
The story will remind readers of Algernon Blackwood’s classic “The Willows” (1907), insofar as the fearful contents of the narrator’s mind seem projected on indeterminate natural phenomena: shapes forming in the fluttering leaves of trees, or in this case, ripples of water and sea grass, and in patterns of clouds overhead. Both stories are set adjacent to moody, changeable bodies of water. Praise for “The Night Ocean” from Lovecraft and others is connected to its close resemblance to classic weird fiction by the likes of Blackwood, in which “Plot is everywhere negligible, and atmosphere reigns untrammeled.” Joshi adds that “the avoidance of explicitness” contributes to its quality, making it a “richly interpretable story.”
A contemporary example of one who excels at creating nightmarishly amorphous visions is Thomas Ligotti, and it is interesting to compare some of his stories with “The Night Ocean”. Ligotti is the author who comes instantly to mind when reading this passage from Barlow’s work:
The day was in late September, and the town had closed the resorts where mad frivolity ruled empty, fear-haunted lives, and where raddled puppets performed their summer antics. The puppets were cast aside, smeared with the painted smiles and frowns they had last assumed, and there were not a hundred people left in the town. Again the gaudy, stucco-fronted buildings lining the shore were permitted to crumble undisturbed in the wind.
“The Night Ocean” is also interesting because much of the content has to do with the formation of an egregore. This is loosely defined as a kind of undifferentiated energy that takes a shape given it by the preconceived notions of those sensitive enough to detect it, interact with it, and perhaps worship or invoke it. At some point in its development, the egregore can take on a life and a will of its own, separate from the imagination of its creator. At that stage, the egregore is not easily vanquished so long as its believer or believers continue to exist. (Readers may know of different words for the same entity.)
The concept of the egregore is of growing academic fascination, at least to me. The notion has been discussed in several previous posts. (It may become the subject of a future book, if I can ever get around to writing it.) Egregoric phenomena seem to link conventional religion, the occult, and some types of weird fiction with nightmare and the unconscious—which is our primary mode of consciousness. There are numerous passages in “The Night Ocean” which document the formation of an egregore—the story could be considered a case study of egregore development in one troubled individual. To give just one example:
…there was an alien presence about the place: a spirit, a mood, an impression that came from the surging wind, the gigantic sky, and that sea which drooled blackening waves upon a beach grown abruptly strange. At these times I felt an uneasiness which had no very definite cause, although my solitary nature had made me long accustomed to the ancient silence and the ancient voice of nature. These misgivings, to which I could have put no sure name, did not affect me long, yet I think now that all the while a gradual consciousness of the ocean’s immense loneliness crept upon me, a loneliness that was made subtly horrible by intimations—which were never more than such—of some animation or sentience preventing me from being wholly alone.
Compare this description to the entity in Clark Ashton Smith’s “Genius Loci” (1933), which depicts a similar kind of phenomenon, though Smith’s is more concretely personified. However, the egregore in “Genius Loci” shows a similar kind of development in the minds of the characters. Typical of Smith is the seductive and addictive nature of his creation, which draws power from the imaginations of its victims long before they succumb physically. (See also When Your Genius Loci is a Spiritus Malus.)
Not much actually happens in “The Night Ocean” because, as Lovecraft suggests above, the emphasis is on setting. But then, not much needs to happen, because the story is about the interaction of a mind with a particular place. The tormented narrator, a vacationing artist, gets spooked in an isolated cottage by the ocean. But the extreme subtlety which Barlow uses in documenting the increasingly disturbed mind of his narrator is very effective. The author keeps the details—odd jewelry washed up on shore, an old fairy tale he remembers from childhood, a bit of disturbing material that might be human remains—nightmarishly indistinct.
Barlow’s narrator, sensitive to the mood and evocativeness of his environment, gradually gives imaginative shape and presence to an indeterminate spirit or malign presence. The process seems analogous to the way that conventional religions shape their adherent’s imaginations through contemplation, worship and prayer, a type of hypnotic suggestion. The narrator’s suspicions may amount to something or perhaps nothing at all, but readers will conclude there is definitely something going on.
The influence of Lovecraft’s cosmicism can be felt in powerful passages like this one:
I felt, in brief agonies or disillusionment, the gigantic blackness of this overwhelming universe, in which my days and the days of my race were as nothing to the shattered stars; a universe in which each action is vain and even the emotion of grief a wasted thing.
A similar passage occurs near the end of Barlow’s “Till A’ the Seas”, which describes this sentiment quite literally. It is the most conspicuous impact of Lovecraft on the younger author.
But there is more going on here. Barlow prefigures the artist’s unfolding horror on the beach during some introductory comments about the narrator’s desperate need for a vacation: he had succeeded in creating a mural that “managed to retain in line and colour some fragments snatched from the endless world of imagining.” The implication is that the isolated cottage was a necessary but not a sufficient condition to manifest the entity that later terrifies him. The egregore requires at least a single human mind to empower it and bring about its appearance in this world, something that can happen nearly anywhere.
As of tomorrow, The R’lyeh Tribune is three years old! Iä!