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 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” (1918), 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.”

SOUTH OF THE EQUATOR: Elsewhere the narrator states that his ship was sailing in “one of the most open and least frequented parts of the broad Pacific” when it was attacked. If both statements are accurate, the narrator is, at this point in the tale, probably somewhere north or northwest of French Polynesia.

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” (1917), which Lovecraft finished just before starting “Dagon,” follows the same pattern. Though the narrator insists that he entered the Hyde family’s tomb, everyone else insists that he merely slept 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” (1926), 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” (1933) is, by the end of that tale, reduced to no more than a “liquescent horror.”

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THE FESTIVAL I

“Efficiunt Daemones, ut quae non sunt, sic tamen quasi sint,
conspicienda hominibus exhibeant.”
—Lactantius.

I was far from home, and the spell of the eastern sea was upon me. In the twilight I heard it pounding on the rocks, and I knew it lay just over the hill where the twisting willows writhed against the clearing sky and the first stars of evening. And because my fathers had called me to the old town beyond, I pushed on through the shallow, new-fallen snow along the road that soared lonely up to where Aldebaran twinkled among the trees; on toward the very ancient town I had never seen but often dreamed of.


ORIGINS: In December 1922, Lovecraft visited the ancient seaport of Marblehead, Massachusetts, for the first time, later describing the experience as nothing less than “the high tide of my life.” To Lovecraft, who considered his “love of the ancient and the permanent” a fundamental part of his personality, the sight of Marblehead, which had remained almost unchanged for two hundred years, allowed him, if only temporarily, to transcend the mundane present and immerse himself in his beloved eighteenth century. The experience was electrifying:

God! Shall I ever forget my first stupefying glimpse of MARBLEHEAD’S huddled and archaick roofs under the snow in the delirious sunset glory of four p.m., Dec. 17, 1922!!! I did not know until an hour before that I should ever behold such a place as Marblehead, and I did not know until that moment itself the full extent of the wonder I was to behold. I account that instant—about 4:05 to 4:10 p.m., Dec. 17, 1922—the most powerful single emotional climax experienced during my nearly forty years of existence.

The sight of Marblehead and the impression that he had traveled backwards through time would inspire Lovecraft to write “The Festival,” which he finished in October 1923.  

PUBLICATION HISTORY: Lovecraft submitted the completed story to Weird Tales, which included it in the January 1925 issue. It appeared alongside tales by E. Hoffmann Price (1898-1988), Henry S. Whitehead (1882-1932), Seabury Quinn (1889-1969), Frank Belknap Long (1901-1994), and C. M. Eddy, Jr. (1896-1967).  

EFFICIUNT DAEMONES: The epigraph’s author, Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (250-325) served as an advisor to Constantine I (272-337), the first Christian Emperor, and as a tutor to his son. He is best known for his work Institutiones Divinae (The Divine Institutes), in which he responds to pagan critics of Christianity.

According to S. T. Joshi, Lovecraft obtained this epigraph from his first edition of Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (The Glorious Works of Christ in America), in which it is quoted. Translated, it reads “Devils so work that things which are not appear to men as if they were real.”

ALDEBARAN: One of the brightest stars in the winter sky, Aldebaran also appears in Lovecraft’s “Polaris” (1918). Because of the giant star’s ruddy color, Lovecraft refers to it as “red Aldebaran” in that tale.    

THE FESTIVAL X

We went out into the moonless and tortuous network of that incredibly ancient town; went out as the lights in the curtained windows disappeared one by one, and the Dog Star leered at the throng of cowled, cloaked figures that poured silently from every doorway and formed monstrous processions up this street and that, past the creaking signs and antediluvian gables, the thatched roofs and diamond-paned windows; threading precipitous lanes where decaying houses overlapped and crumbled together, gliding across open courts and churchyards where the bobbing lanthorns made eldritch drunken constellations.

Amid these hushed throngs I followed my voiceless guides; jostled by elbows that seemed preternaturally soft, and pressed by chests and stomachs that seemed abnormally pulpy; but seeing never a face and hearing never a word. Up, up, up the eerie columns slithered, and I saw that all the travellers were converging as they flowed near a sort of focus of crazy alleys at the top of a high hill in the centre of the town, where perched a great white church. I had seen it from the road’s crest when I looked at Kingsport in the new dusk, and it had made me shiver because Aldebaran had seemed to balance itself a moment on the ghostly spire.


THE DOG STAR: The brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, or the Dog Star, belongs to the constellation Canis Major. Since ancient times, astronomers have associated the constellation, whose name means “Greater Dog,” with Orion, which it appears to follow across the sky. In The Iliad, Homer even refers to the star as “Orion’s Hound”:

King Priam was first to note him [Achilles] as he scoured the plain, all radiant as the star which men call Orion’s Hound, and whose beams blaze forth in time of harvest more brilliantly than those of any other that shines by night; brightest of them all though he be, he yet bodes ill for mortals, for he brings fire and fever in his train—even so did Achilles’ armour gleam on his breast as he sped onwards.

Note the resemblance between this passage, which refers to the Dog Star as “leering,” and the following passage from Lovecraft’s tale “Polaris” (1918):  

Just before dawn Arcturus winks ruddily from above the cemetery on the low hillock, and Coma Berenices shimmers weirdly afar off in the mysterious east; but still the Pole Star leers down from the same place in the black vault, winking hideously like an insane watching eye which strives to convey some strange message, yet recalls nothing save that it once had a message to convey.

ABNORMALLY PULPY: In many ways, the narrator’s macabre march through Kingsport mirrors Robert Olmstead’s flight from Innsmouth, for both men watch with horror as inhuman forms flood the once empty streets:

For out of an opened door in the Gilman House a large crowd of doubtful shapes was pouring—lanterns bobbing in the darkness, and horrible croaking voices exchanging low cries in what was certainly not English. The figures moved uncertainly, and I realised to my relief that they did not know where I had gone; but for all that they sent a shiver of horror through my frame. Their features were indistinguishable, but their crouching, shambling gait was abominably repellent.

And yet, while the scene from “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931) ends with Olmstead fainting, the narrator of “The Festival” seems to accept the “preternaturally soft” elbows and “abnormally pulpy” chests of his companions, for he continues to follow them through the city. Like a dreamer trapped in a nightmare, the narrator can only observe. No matter how bizarre or grotesque the dream may become, he cannot flee.

A GREAT WHITE CHURCH: Lovecraft may be referring to St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, one of the oldest Episcopal churches in New England. Built in 1714, the historic building holds services to this day. S. T. Joshi, however, speculates that the “great white church” Lovecraft mentions refers to either the First Meeting House, built atop Old Burial Hill in 1648, or the Second Congregational Church, built in 1715. Unlike St. Michael’s, both churches belonged to the Reformed tradition.  

ALDEBARAN: The passages above, which refer to Sirius, Aldebaran, and the “drunken constellations” made by the procession’s bobbing lanterns, provide proof of Lovecraft’s lifelong love of astronomy. Later in life, Lovecraft would trace this love back to a gift he received from his mother:

. . . In the summer of 1903 my mother presented me with a 2½ astronomical telescope, and thenceforward my gaze was ever upward at night. The late Prof. Upton of Brown, a friend of the family, gave me the freedom of the college observatory, (Ladd Observatory) & I came & went there at will on my bicycle. Ladd Observatory tops a considerable eminence about a mile from the house. I used to walk up Doyle Avenue hill with my wheel, but when returning would have a glorious coast down it. So constant were my observations, that my neck became affected by the strain of peering at a difficult angle. It gave me much pain, & resulted in a permanent curvature perceptible today to a close observer.