A series of drownings occur, and of course our guy begins to ruminate upon what the sea hides in its dreadful brooding depths, knowing that no sharks patrol these waters:
The people who died—some of them swimmers of a skill beyond the average—sometimes not found until many days had elapsed, and the hideous vengeance of the deep had scourged their rotten bodies. It was as if the sea had dragged them into a chasm-lair, and had mulled about in the darkness until, satisfied that they were no longer of any use, she had floated them ashore in a ghastly state.
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... a loneliness crept upon me... made subtly horrible by intimations of some animation or sentience preventing me from being wholly alone.
Vague as it may be, something is happening: a strangely carved metal bead found washed up on shore; figures cavorting one rainy night outside the house who freeze with "cryptic blankness... in the morbid sunset" when our narrator waves at them to come in from the downpour. When he looks out the window, they are gone. And what of the foul, decaying thing that is bandied about in the surf the next morning? He is offended by "the presence of such an object amid the apparent beauty of the clean beach," but knows intuitively that "it was horribly typical of the indifference of death in a nature which mingles rottenness with beauty, and perhaps loves the former more."
At times the narrator overindulges in his moodiness, as amorphous images, observations, and feelings tumble over one another in a manner that may slow some readers; I certainly had to take a break here and there. But the cumulative effect of Barlow's careful observations cannot be dismissed or ignored: "The Night Ocean" is a powerful work of eerie suggestion, of the supernatural qualities that lurk in various aspects of our natural world, of a reality beyond human ken that affords us a momentary glance at its incomprehensible secrets, something like the call of the void, "an ecstasy akin to fear." I feel as though Lovecraft may have inserted very subtle allusions to Innsmouth and the Deep Ones (the carven metal bead, odd figures emerging from the waves, and more) into Barlow's poetic, philosophical treatise on insignificance, which the unknowable sea appears to represent. Knowing that Barlow would kill himself lends a real poignancy to passages like this:
I felt, in brief agonies of 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.
Barlow reaches for and achieves, I believe, a secular, sermon-like quality as he wraps up his tale, a drawing together of experience and emotion into a solemn whole of profound insight into the human condition... yet is aware that he can never truly capture in these "scribbled pages" what has happened to him. Awed and humbled before an oceanic universe, as this circle closes, he can only offer, and take refuge in, the balm of nothingness.
Vast and lonely is the ocean, and even as all things came from it, so shall they return thereto. In the shrouded depths of time none shall reign upon the earth, nor shall any motion be, save in the eternal waters.