DAGON I

I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more. Penniless, and at the end of my supply of the drug which alone makes life endurable, I can bear the torture no longer; and shall cast myself from this garret window into the squalid street below. Do not think from my slavery to morphine that I am a weakling or a degenerate. When you have read these hastily scrawled pages you may guess, though never fully realise, why it is that I must have forgetfulness or death.


CONCEPTION: As a child, Lovecraft wrote an enormous amount, both poetry and prose, but later in life, he kept only two of his early tales, “The Beast in the Cave” (1905) and “The Alchemist” (1908). During the decade following high school, he considered himself a poet and wrote only verse. In 1917, he became friends with W. Paul Cook, an amateur printer and publisher who encouraged Lovecraft to write more prose. Encouraged by Cook, Lovecraft wrote “The Tomb” and “Dagon” during the summer of 1917. They were the first stories he had written in almost a decade. “Dagon,” like “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1919) and “Nyarlathotep”  (1920), is based on a dream.

PUBLICATION HISTORY: “Dagon” was first published in the November 1919 issue of The Vagrant, an amateur paper published by Cook. As a preface, Cook attached an article of his own, “Howard P. Lovecraft’s Fiction,” in which he claims that Lovecraft is “the only amateur story-writer worthy of more than a polite passing notice.” Though Cook only cites three of Lovecraft’s stories, the other two being “The Beast in the Cave” (1905) and “The Alchemist” (1908), he compares him favorably to Edgar Allan Poe and Guy de Maupassant and claims that Lovecraft would soon “advance even beyond the high mark he has set in ‘Dagon.'” In 1923, Lovecraft submitted the story, along with five others, to Weird Tales, which published it that October. It was Lovecraft’s first appearance in that magazine.

INTRODUCTION: Lovecraft’s opening betrays the influence of his idol, Edgar Allan Poe. In “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), for instance, Poe’s narrator insists, despite his obvious agitation, that he is sane:

True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

Lovecraft cannot match Poe’s intensity, but his narrator sounds no less delusional: he is, by his own admission, suicidal and addicted to morphine. Like the narrator quoted above, he realizes that his audience will assume that he is insane, so he offers his “hastily scrawled” confession as proof of his rationality.

DEGENERACY: Considering his lifelong interest in racial purity, miscegenation, and degeneration, we should not be surprised by Lovecraft’s fear that his alter ego will be considered a “weakling or a degenerate.” Degenerates, of one type or another, appear in several of Lovecraft’s stories, including “The Picture in the House” (1920), “The Lurking Fear” (1922), and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1931). As for the reference to “weaklings,” Lovecraft himself was deeply ashamed that health problems, real or imagined, prevented him from obtaining a high school diploma, attending Brown University, and serving in the Rhode Island National Guard.

MADNESS: The issue of sanity appears again and again in Lovecraft’s fiction. His own father, Winfield Scott Lovecraft, suffered a psychotic episode in 1893 while on a business trip to Chicago and spent the remaining five years of his life in a Butler Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. In the years that followed, Lovecraft’s mother’s mental health deteriorated as well. Clara Hess even claimed that she spoke to her “about weird and fantastic creatures that rushed out from behind buildings.” In 1919, after a nervous breakdown, Sarah Susan Lovecraft was admitted to Butler Hospital where she, like her husband before her, spent the rest of her life. During his childhood, Lovecraft himself suffered several “breakdowns.” In 1904, after the death of his maternal grandfather, Whipple Van Buren Phillips, and the sale of the house where Lovecraft and his family had been living, Lovecraft even contemplated suicide:

How could an old man of 14 (& I surely felt that way!) readjust his existence to a skimpy flat & new household programme & inferior outdoor setting in which almost nothing familiar remained? It seemed like a damned futile business to keep on living. No more tutors—high school next September which would probably be a devilish bore, since one couldn’t be as free & easy in high school as one had been during brief snatches at the neighbourly Slater Ave. school…. Oh, hell! Why not slough off consciousness altogether?

MORPHINE: Although Lovecraft abstained from alcohol and, during his youth, strongly supported Prohibition, drug addiction appears in several of his early stories. In “Celephaïs” (1920), for instance, the protagonist, Kuranes, uses drugs to stay asleep, thus extending the amount of time he can spend dreaming. When he tries hashish, it transports him “to a part of space where form does not exist, but where glowing gases study the secrets of existence.”

DAGON II

It was in one of the most open and least frequented parts of the broad Pacific that the packet of which I was supercargo fell a victim to the German sea-raider. The great war was then at its very beginning, and the ocean forces of the Hun had not completely sunk to their later degradation; so that our vessel was made a legitimate prize, whilst we of her crew were treated with all the fairness and consideration due us as naval prisoners. So liberal, indeed, was the discipline of our captors, that five days after we were taken I managed to escape alone in a small boat with water and provisions for a good length of time.


WORLD WAR I: Lovecraft, being a devout and sincere anglophile, championed the cause of the Allies in the Great War. In both poems and essays, he calls upon the United States to renounce neutrality and assist the British Empire by declaring war on Germany and Austria. From Lovecraft’s perspective, America and England formed  a single nation, divided politically but united by culture, language, and ethnicity. In “An American to Mother England,” one of Lovecraft’s many anglophilic poems, he celebrates this shared heritage, claiming that “From British bodies, minds, and souls I come, / And from them draw the vision of their home.” In his amateur paper, The Conservative, he refers to this concept as “Pan-Saxonism” and, beating loudly on the drums of war, calls for a “healthy militarism” as opposed to “dangerous and unpatriotic peace-preaching.”

SUBMARINE WARFARE: Lovecraft returned to this theme again in his short story “The Temple” (1920), his only truly nautical tale. Purporting to be the log of Karl Heinrich, Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein, Lieutenant-Commander in the Imperial German Navy, “The Temple” records the last days of U-29, a disabled submarine which has settled on the ocean floor. While the German crew mentioned in “Dagon” treats its prisoners with “all the fairness and consideration due us as naval prisoners,” Heinrich calmly murders his:

On the afternoon of June 18, as reported by wireless to the U-61, bound for Kiel, we torpedoed the British freighter Victory, New York to Liverpool, in N. Latitude 45° 16′, W. Longitude 28° 34′; permitting the crew to leave in boats in order to obtain a good cinema view for the admiralty records. The ship sank quite picturesquely, bow first, the stern rising high out of the water whilst the hull shot down perpendicularly to the bottom of the sea. Our camera missed nothing, and I regret that so fine a reel of film should never reach Berlin. After that we sank the lifeboats with our guns and submerged.

LUSITANIA: In May 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, sinking the ocean liner and killing almost 1,200 people. The American people were outraged, none more so than Lovecraft. In his poem “The Crime of Crimes,” he lambasts the “Prussian wolf” for sinking the Lusitania and calls upon all mankind to “crush the hissing head / That all the world hath learn’d to hate and dread.”

DAGON III

When I finally found myself adrift and free, I had but little idea of my surroundings. Never a competent navigator, I could only guess vaguely by the sun and stars that I was somewhat south of the equator. Of the longitude I knew nothing, and no island or coast-line was in sight. The weather kept fair, and for uncounted days I drifted aimlessly beneath the scorching sun; waiting either for some passing ship, or to be cast on the shores of some habitable land. But neither ship nor land appeared, and I began to despair in my solitude upon the heaving vastnesses of unbroken blue.

The change happened whilst I slept. Its details I shall never know; for my slumber, though troubled and dream-infested, was continuous. When at last I awaked, it was to discover myself half sucked into a slimy expanse of hellish black mire which extended about me in monotonous undulations as far as I could see, and in which my boat lay grounded some distance away.


SUN AND STARS: Lovecraft’s love of astronomy dates as far back as his twelfth year. For much of his childhood, he even planned on becoming an astronomer, but unfortunately, he learned in high school that he simply could not master the advanced mathematics required in modern astronomy. The realization was a bitter one:

The whole thing disappointed me bitterly, for I was then intending to purse astronomy as a career, and of course advanced astronomy is simply a mass of mathematics. That was the first major setback I ever received—the first time I was ever brought up short against a consciousness of my own limitations. It was clear to me that I hadn’t brains enough to be an astronomer—and that was a pill I couldn’t swallow with equanimity.

Not surprisingly, stars, constellations, and other celestial phenomena appear frequently in Lovecraft’s fiction. In “Polaris,” for example, the Pole Star, “leering like a fiend and tempter,” lulls the narrator to sleep, thus preventing him from sounding the alarm when invaders “steal up the pass behind the peak Noton and take the citadel by surprise.”

DREAMS: Lovecraft hints that the narrator, while adrift at sea, may have dreamt the entire episode. By providing an alternative explanation for the story’s supernatural events, Lovecraft adds an additional layer of complexity to the narrative. In a categorical sense, the story belongs to the “ambiguous supernatural,” a subgenre within supernatural horror. “The Tomb,” which Lovecraft finished just before starting “Dagon,” follows the same pattern. Though the narrator insists that he could, and did, enter his family’s tomb, everyone else insists that he was sleeping outside of it:

What I have dared relate of my experiences within the vault has brought me only pitying smiles. My father, who visits me frequently, declares that at no time did I pass the chained portal, and swears that the rusted padlock had not been touched for fifty years when he examined it. He even says that all the village knew of my journeys to the tomb, and that I was often watched as I slept in the bower outside the grim facade, my half-open eyes fixed on the crevice that leads to the interior.

Like the narrator of “Dagon,” he may have dreamt the entire narrative.

BLACK MIRE: Lovecraft delights in limning certain images, and a sticky, tar-like ooze is one of them. By the end of “Cool Air,” all that remains of Dr. Muñoz is “a kind of dark, slimy trail” which leads “from the open bathroom door to the hall door, and thence to the desk, where a terrible little pool had accumulated.” Similarly, one of the central characters of  “The Thing on the Doorstep” is, by the end of the tale, reduced to no more than a “liquescent horror.” Lovecraft’s mentor, Edgar Allan Poe, may have inspired several, if not all, of these descriptions. In “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” Poe describes that character’s remains as a “nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putrescence.”

DAGON IV

Though one might well imagine that my first sensation would be of wonder at so prodigious and unexpected a transformation of scenery, I was in reality more horrified than astonished; for there was in the air and in the rotting soil a sinister quality which chilled me to the very core. The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish, and of other less describable things which I saw protruding from the nasty mud of the unending plain. Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity. There was nothing within hearing, and nothing in sight save a vast reach of black slime; yet the very completeness of the stillness and the homogeneity of the landscape oppressed me with a nauseating fear.


WONDER: Few of Lovecraft’s stories focus solely on horror. Instead, they explore the sublime, a sensation composed of equal parts terror and awe. As a result, most of Lovecraft’s characters experience a sense of internal conflict as they grapple with their ambivalence towards the mysteries they have uncovered. When the narrator of “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930), for instance, first learns of the existence of the Old Ones in the hills of Vermont, he feels, mixed with his horror, exhilaration: “My brain whirled; and where before I had attempted to explain things away, I now began to believe in the most abnormal and incredible wonders.” In a sense, Lovecraft’s characters experience a sort of religious revelation, and while most flee from what they have learned, a few embrace it. In “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931), for example, the narrator revels in the hideous transformation he, like his cousin before him, is experiencing:

I shall plan my cousin’s escape from that Canton madhouse, and together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.

DECAYING FISH: Lovecraft despised seafood, particularly the smell. This aversion, radically transformed, appears again and again in Lovecraft’s fiction, specifically in the way he depicts monsters and aliens. Lovecraft’s most famous creation, Great Cthulhu, resembles a giant squid, the Old Ones in “The Whisperer in Darkness” crabs, and the Deep Ones in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” frogs.

UNENDING PLAIN: The landscape Lovecraft describes here closely resembles the “blasted heath” found in his later tale “The Colour out of Space” (1927): 

I knew it the moment I came upon it at the bottom of a spacious valley; for no other name could fit such a thing, or any other thing fit such a name. It was as if the poet had coined the phrase from having seen this one particular region. It must, I thought as I viewed it, be the outcome of a fire; but why had nothing new ever grown over those five acres of grey desolation that sprawled open to the sky like a great spot eaten by acid in the woods and fields? It lay largely to the north of the ancient road line, but encroached a little on the other side. I felt an odd reluctance about approaching, and did so at last only because my business took me through and past it. There was no vegetation of any kind on that broad expanse, but only a fine grey dust or ash which no wind seemed ever to blow about. The trees near it were sickly and stunted, and many dead trunks stood or lay rotting at the rim.

Of course, the blasted heath, which lies somewhere “west of Arkham,” was never underwater, but even so, the descriptions of the two locales share a great deal. Devoid of vegetation, both landscapes evoke a sense of “absolute silence and barren immensity,” which oppresses the spirit and fills observers with horror. Both narrators, curiously, refer to rot in their descriptions though, as a general rule, the narrator of “The Colour out of Space” incorporates far more details into his account, an indication, perhaps, of Lovecraft’s growth as a writer.

UNUTTERABLE: One of Lovecraft’s favorite words, an “unutterable” sight appears in almost every Lovecraft story. “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932) refers to an “unutterable and unendurable climax” while the narrator of “The Haunter in the Dark” (1935) describes his situation as one of “unutterable horror.” The narrator of “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922) describes a scream as no less “unutterable” than the “chaos of hellish sound” resulting from “the agony of the damned.” More than just a favorite expression, the concept of being “unutterable” is central to Lovecraft’s philosophy. The phenomenon that his characters witness cannot be described because it is so far removed from humanity’s collective experience that no words exist to label or explain it. In a sense, there can be no words to describe it: the violations of natural law that Lovecraft depicts are beyond humanity’s comprehension.

DAGON V

The sun was blazing down from a sky which seemed to me almost black in its cloudless cruelty; as though reflecting the inky marsh beneath my feet. As I crawled into the stranded boat I realised that only one theory could explain my position. Through some unprecedented volcanic upheaval, a portion of the ocean floor must have been thrown to the surface, exposing regions which for innumerable millions of years had lain hidden under unfathomable watery depths. So great was the extent of the new land which had risen beneath me, that I could not detect the faintest noise of the surging ocean, strain my ears as I might. Nor were there any sea-fowl to prey upon the dead things.

For several hours I sat thinking or brooding in the boat, which lay upon its side and afforded a slight shade as the sun moved across the heavens. As the day progressed, the ground lost some of its stickiness, and seemed likely to dry sufficiently for travelling purposes in a short time. That night I slept but little, and the next day I made for myself a pack containing food and water, preparatory to an overland journey in search of the vanished sea and possible rescue.

On the third morning I found the soil dry enough to walk upon with ease. The odour of the fish was maddening; but I was too much concerned with graver things to mind so slight an evil, and set out boldly for an unknown goal. All day I forged steadily westward, guided by a far-away hummock which rose higher than any other elevation on the rolling desert. That night I encamped, and on the following day still travelled toward the hummock, though that object seemed scarcely nearer than when I had first espied it. By the fourth evening I attained the base of the mound, which turned out to be much higher than it had appeared from a distance; an intervening valley setting it out in sharper relief from the general surface. Too weary to ascend, I slept in the shadow of the hill.


CRAWLED INTO THE STRANDED BOAT: The dream which inspired “Dagon” consisted, in part, of this crawl through the “black slime.” When an amateur journalist wondered how the narrator, who was sucked into the mire, could crawl to his boat, Lovecraft responded in his essay “In Defence of Dagon,” which he submitted to the Transatlantic Circulator, a group of amateur writers who exchanged stories, essays, and poems:

The hero-victim is sucked half into the mire, yet he does crawl! He pulls himself along in the detestable ooze, tenaciously though it clings to him. I know, for I dreamed that whole hideous crawl, and can yet feel the ooze sucking me down!

VOLCANIC UPHEAVAL: Geology, like the other hard sciences, fascinated Lovecraft, and references to it appear through his fiction. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness (1931), which is narrated by a geologist, is replete with technical descriptions of his expedition’s progress:

We were some 8500 feet above sea-level, and when experimental drillings revealed solid ground only twelve feet down through the snow and ice at certain points, we made considerable use of the small melting apparatus and sunk bores and performed dynamiting at many places where no previous explorer had ever thought of securing mineral specimens. The pre-Cambrian granites and beacon sandstones thus obtained confirmed our belief that this plateau was homogeneous with the great bulk of the continent to the west, but somewhat different from the parts lying eastward below South America—which we then thought to form a separate and smaller continent divided from the larger one by a frozen junction of Ross and Weddell Seas, though Byrd has since disproved the hypothesis.

In “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), an earthquake lifts a submerged island to the surface in much the same way that “volcanic upheaval” throws up a “portion of the ocean floor” in “Dagon.” Like in “Dagon,” the recently submerged island contains evidence of otherworldly horrors.

MILLIONS OF YEARS: As in so many Lovecraft stories, the sheer age of the universe is a source of terror. Compared to the short lives of human beings, the age of the cosmos

DAGON VI

I know not why my dreams were so wild that night; but ere the waning and fantastically gibbous moon had risen far above the eastern plain, I was awake in a cold perspiration, determined to sleep no more. Such visions as I had experienced were too much for me to endure again. And in the glow of the moon I saw how unwise I had been to travel by day. Without the glare of the parching sun, my journey would have cost me less energy; indeed, I now felt quite able to perform the ascent which had deterred me at sunset. Picking up my pack, I started for the crest of the eminence.

I have said that the unbroken monotony of the rolling plain was a source of vague horror to me; but I think my horror was greater when I gained the summit of the mound and looked down the other side into an immeasurable pit or canyon, whose black recesses the moon had not yet soared high enough to illumine. I felt myself on the edge of the world; peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of eternal night. Through my terror ran curious reminiscences of Paradise Lost, and of Satan’s hideous climb through the unfashioned realms of darkness.


VISIONS:

PILGRIM’S PROGRESS:

PARADISE LOST:

DAGON VII

As the moon climbed higher in the sky, I began to see that the slopes of the valley were not quite so perpendicular as I had imagined. Ledges and outcroppings of rock afforded fairly easy foot-holds for a descent, whilst after a drop of a few hundred feet, the declivity became very gradual. Urged on by an impulse which I cannot definitely analyse, I scrambled with difficulty down the rocks and stood on the gentler slope beneath, gazing into the Stygian deeps where no light had yet penetrated.

All at once my attention was captured by a vast and singular object on the opposite slope, which rose steeply about an hundred yards ahead of me; an object that gleamed whitely in the newly bestowed rays of the ascending moon. That it was merely a gigantic piece of stone, I soon assured myself; but I was conscious of a distinct impression that its contour and position were not altogether the work of Nature. A closer scrutiny filled me with sensations I cannot express; for despite its enormous magnitude, and its position in an abyss which had yawned at the bottom of the sea since the world was young, I perceived beyond a doubt that the strange object was a well-shaped monolith whose massive bulk had known the workmanship and perhaps the worship of living and thinking creatures.


INVOLUNTARY IMPULSES:

STYGIAN:

MONOLITHS:

ALIEN ART: