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.


ORIGINS: “Dagon” occupies a unique place in Lovecraft’s oeuvre. As a child, Lovecraft wrote an enormous amount, both poetry and prose, but in the decade following high school, he wrote only verse and preserved only two of his early tales, “The Beast in the Cave” (1905) and “The Alchemist” (1908). In 1917, he became friends with W. Paul Cook, an amateur printer and publisher, who encouraged Lovecraft to write more prose. Prompted 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 will 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 would be Lovecraft’s first appearance in that magazine.

AN APPRECIABLE MENTAL STRAIN: Lovecraft’s opening betrays the influence of his idol Edgar Allan Poe whose narrators often feel compelled to prove their sanity. 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 concern 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 Butler Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. In the years that followed, Lovecraft’s mother’s mental health deteriorated as well. In her memoir, Clara Hess even claims 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 mother 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.”

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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.”

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.


ALMOST BLACK IN ITS CLOUDLESS CRUELTY: Lovecraft’s descriptions tend to be accurate, specific, and detailed. The paradoxical image he presents here—a sky so sunny and bright that it is black—is a rare exception.

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 is sucked into the mire, could crawl to his boat, Lovecraft responded in his essay “In Defence of Dagon” (1921), 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: 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.

Geology, like the other hard sciences, fascinated Lovecraft. In a letter to his friend Alfred Galpin, Lovecraft even goes so far as to claim that his love of “scientific logick” was a fundamental part of his nature: 

I should describe mine own nature as tripartite, my interests consisting of three parallel and dissociated groups—(a) Love of the strange and the fantastic. (b) Love of the abstract truth and of scientific logick. (c) Love of the ancient and the permanent. Sundry combinations of these three strains will probably account for all my odd tastes and eccentricities.

Not surprisingly, Lovecraft’s fiction abounds with references to geology, astronomy, biology, and the other sciences. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness (1931), for example, being narrated by a geologist, is replete with technical descriptions of the 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. 

MILLIONS OF YEARS: As in so many Lovecraft stories, the sheer age of the universe is a source of terror. Compared to the age of the cosmos, the short lives of human beings seem no longer than the lives of fruit flies. To Lovecraft, who rejected the idea of a “cosmos which gives a damn one way or the other about the especial wants and ultimate welfare of mosquitoes, rats, lice, dogs, men, horses, pterodactyls, trees, fungi, dodos, or other forms of biological energy,” the transient nature of human life renders it, not only insignificant, but meaningless as well. 

DAGON XI

When I came out of the shadows I was in a San Francisco hospital; brought thither by the captain of the American ship which had picked up my boat in mid-ocean. In my delirium I had said much, but found that my words had been given scant attention. Of any land upheaval in the Pacific, my rescuers knew nothing; nor did I deem it necessary to insist upon a thing which I knew they could not believe. Once I sought out a celebrated ethnologist, and amused him with peculiar questions regarding the ancient Philistine legend of Dagon, the Fish-God; but soon perceiving that he was hopelessly conventional, I did not press my inquiries.


SAN FRANCISCO: At this time, the City by the Bay was probably the largest on the West Coast, being slightly larger than Los Angeles. Lovecraft’s idol, “the eccentric and saturnine journalist” Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) was associated the city, one of his nicknames being the “Wickedest Man in San Francisco.” As for Lovecraft, he never traveled farther west than New Orleans.   

RESCUE AT SEA: Considering the distances involved and the lack of provisions, could the narrator really find his way back to his boat, overcome the turbulence created by the sinking of the newly risen ocean floor, and survive on the open sea until he was rescued? It seems far more likely that he became delirious shortly after escaping from the Germans and dreamed the entire narrative.

DAGON, THE FISH-GOD: Though the narrator associates the god Dagon with aquatic life, scholars now believe that he was a fertility god, more akin to Demeter than Poseidon. In any case, peoples throughout the ancient Near East worshipped him, including the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians. Lovecraft probably refers to him as an “ancient Philistine legend” because the Old Testament presents him as the god of the Philistines.  

HOPELESSLY CONVENTIONAL: Time and time again, Lovecraft’s characters attempt to explain to the authorities what they have experienced only to be publicly humiliated for their efforts. In “The Colour out of Space” (1927), for instance, Nahum Gardner becomes an object of ridicule when he tries to convince a journalist that a meteorite has poisoned his farm and the flora and fauna found therein:

When the early saxifrage came out it had another strange colour; not quite like that of the skunk-cabbage, but plainly related and equally unknown to anyone who saw it. Nahum took some blossoms to Arkham and shewed them to the editor of the Gazette, but that dignitary did no more than write a humorous article about them, in which the dark fears of rustics were held up to polite ridicule. It was a mistake of Nahum’s to tell a stolid city man about the way the great, overgrown mourning-cloak butterflies behaved in connexion with these saxifrages.

In “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930), however, the roles are reversed, and the narrator, an “instructor of literature at Miskatonic University,” initially scoffs at the strange stories coming out of Vermont:  

Shortly after the flood, amidst the varied reports of hardship, suffering, and organised relief which filled the press, there appeared certain odd stories of things found floating in some of the swollen rivers; so that many of my friends embarked on curious discussions and appealed to me to shed what light I could on the subject. I felt flattered at having my folklore study taken so seriously, and did what I could to belittle the wild, vague tales which seemed so clearly an outgrowth of old rustic superstitions. It amused me to find several persons of education who insisted that some stratum of obscure, distorted fact might underlie the rumours. 

THE FESTIVAL XIV

The man who had brought me now squirmed to a point directly beside the hideous flame, and made stiff ceremonial motions to the semicircle he faced. At certain stages of the ritual they did grovelling obeisance, especially when he held above his head that abhorrent Necronomicon he had taken with him; and I shared all the obeisances because I had been summoned to this festival by the writings of my forefathers. Then the old man made a signal to the half-seen flute-player in the darkness, which player thereupon changed its feeble drone to a scarce louder drone in another key; precipitating as it did so a horror unthinkable and unexpected. At this horror I sank nearly to the lichened earth, transfixed with a dread not of this nor any world, but only of the mad spaces between the stars.

Out of the unimaginable blackness beyond the gangrenous glare of that cold flame, out of the Tartarean leagues through which that oily river rolled uncanny, unheard, and unsuspected, there flopped rhythmically a horde of tame, trained, hybrid winged things that no sound eye could ever wholly grasp, or sound brain ever wholly remember. They were not altogether crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor vampire bats, nor decomposed human beings; but something I cannot and must not recall. They flopped limply along, half with their webbed feet and half with their membraneous wings; and as they reached the throng of celebrants the cowled figures seized and mounted them, and rode off one by one along the reaches of that unlighted river, into pits and galleries of panic where poison springs feed frightful and undiscoverable cataracts.


THE MAD SPACES BETWEEN THE STARS: As grotesque as these “winged things” are, their physical appearance is not the source of the narrator’s dread. He fears them, of course, but more than that, he fears that the universe is not what he imagined it to be. Outside of the realm humanity knows, in the “mad spaces between the stars,” there exist entities far more horrible than anything found on any known world. These winged creatures are proof of that.    

HYBRID WINGED THINGS: The “hybrid winged things” that Lovecraft describes recall the bat-like creatures that haunted his childhood dreams. Appearing shortly after the death of his maternal grandmother in 1896, these “night-gaunts” tormented the young Lovecraft for years:  

I began to have nightmares of the most hideous description, peopled with things which I called “night-gaunts”—a compound word of my own coinage. I used to draw them after waking (perhaps the idea of these figures came from an edition de luxe of Paradise Lost with illustrations by Doré, which I discovered one day in the east parlor). In dreams they were wont to whirl me through space at a sickening rate of speed, the while fretting & impelling me with their detestable tridents. It is fully fifteen years—aye, more—since I have seen a “night-gaunt”, but even now, when half asleep & drifting vaguely along over a sea of childhood thoughts, I feel a thrill of fear . . . & instinctively struggle to keep awake. That was my own prayer back in ’96—each night—to keep awake & ward off the night-gaunts!

Lovecraft describes the creatures in greater detail in his poem “Night-Gaunts,” which he wrote thirty-four years after he saw them for the first time:  

Out of what crypt they crawl, I cannot tell,
But every night I see the rubbery things,
Black, horned, and slender, with membraneous wings,
And tails that bear the bifid barb of hell.
They come in legions on the north wind’s swell,
With obscene clutch that titillates and stings,
Snatching me off on monstrous voyagings
To grey worlds hidden deep in nightmare’s well.

Over the jagged peaks of Thok they sweep,
Heedless of all the cries I try to make,
And down the nether pits to that foul lake
Where the puffed shoggoths splash in doubtful sleep.
But oh! If only they would make some sound,
Or wear a face where faces should be found!

THEY WERE NOT ALTOGETHER CROWS, NOR MOLES, NOR BUZZARDS: The gods and monsters that Lovecraft describes in his fiction belong to spaces beyond humanity’s ken. According to the laws of physics and biology, as we know them, they should not even exist. Like the entity in Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space” (1927), which is “almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all,” these beings cannot be classified alongside other living entities because they violate the most basic principles of our taxonomies. Even the names Lovecraft gives them, such as “Cthulhu,” defy pronunciation:

The word is supposed to represent a fumbling human attempt to catch the phonetics of an absolutely non-human word. The name of the hellish entity was invented by beings whose vocal organs were not like man’s, hence it has no relation to the human speech equipment. The syllables were determined by a physiological equipment wholly unlike ours, hence could never be uttered perfectly by human throats. . . .

Because these entities are so truly alien, Lovecraft’s characters often struggle to describe them. In most cases, including the one above, they can only do so by employing analogies. In “The Dunwich Horror” (1928), for instance, the third-person narrator compares the monstrous Wilbur Whateley to a variety of common creatures:

Above the waist it was semi-anthropomorphic; though its chest, where the dog’s rending paws still rested watchfully, had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator. The back was piebald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes. Below the waist, though, it was the worst; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began. The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply. Their arrangement was odd, and seemed to follow the symmetries of some cosmic geometry unknown to earth or the solar system. On each of the hips, deep set in a kind of pinkish, ciliated orbit, was what seemed to be a rudimentary eye; whilst in lieu of a tail there depended a kind of trunk or feeler with purple annular markings, and with many evidences of being an undeveloped mouth or throat. The limbs, save for their black fur, roughly resembled the hind legs of prehistoric earth’s giant saurians; and terminated in ridgy-veined pads that were neither hooves nor claws. 

In much the same vein, Albert Wilmarth, the narrator of “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930), compares the Mi-Go to a “sort of huge, light-red crab with many pairs of legs and with two great bat-like wings in the middle of the back.”  As for Cthulhu himself, the prototypical Lovecraftian monster, Francis Wayland Thurston describes him as resembling an “octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature.”

SEIZED AND MOUNTED THEM: Unlike most of Lovecraft’s creations, the “winged things” he introduces here seem surprisingly tame.  Most of Lovecraft’s monsters are, by nature, uncontrollable, being infinitely larger, stronger, and smarter than the human beings they antagonize. If they refrain from conquering the Earth, it is certainly not because they fear humanity: it is because they take no interest in a planet so insignificant. Even the least of Lovecraft’s godlike entities, the Mi-Go featured in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930), “could easily conquer the earth, but have not tried so far because they have not needed to.” And yet, the “old man” and his fellow cultists control these winged creatures as if they were ordinary steeds. In no other tale does Lovecraft bestow so much power and authority upon the human race.   

THE FESTIVAL XVIII

So I read again that hideous chapter, and shuddered doubly because it was indeed not new to me. I had seen it before, let footprints tell what they might; and where it was I had seen it were best forgotten. There was no one—in waking hours—who could remind me of it; but my dreams are filled with terror, because of phrases I dare not quote. I dare quote only one paragraph, put into such English as I can make from the awkward Low Latin.


IT WAS INDEED NOT NEW TO ME: A similar scene occurs in “The Shadow out of Time” (1935), which ends with the narrator, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, finding a book in a ruined city millions of years old and recognizing his own handwriting in the pages within:

It has been hard for me literally to set down the crucial revelation, though no reader can have failed to guess it. Of course it lay in that book within the metal case—the case which I pried out of its forgotten lair amidst the undisturbed dust of a million centuries. No eye had seen, no hand had touched that book since the advent of man to this planet. And yet, when I flashed my torch upon it in that frightful megalithic abyss, I saw that the queerly pigmented letters on the brittle, aeon-browned cellulose pages were not indeed any nameless hieroglyphs of earth’s youth. They were, instead, the letters of our familiar alphabet, spelling out the words of the English language in my own handwriting.

DREAMS ARE FILLED WITH TERROR: In a sense, the narrator does not truly escape from the horrors he has encountered because he cannot forget what he now knows. Even sleep brings no reprieve, for his “dreams are filled with terror.” True, he has escaped the old man’s clutches, but he can never forget what lurks beneath the “old churchyard on Central Hill,” the mere thought of which makes him “delirious.” In this, he resembles a great many of Lovecraft’s protagonists, for few, if any, recover the peace of mind they enjoyed before their encounters with the unknowable. Because of these experiences, they now possess knowledge that no human being was ever meant to have. As Francis Wayland Thurston states in “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), “we live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” As long as they live, they will never be the same.

References to dreams appear in almost every story Lovecraft ever wrote. A dreamer himself, Lovecraft often experienced exceptionally vivid nightmares, several of which he turned into short stories. “Dagon” (1917), “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1919), “Celephaïs” (1920), “Nyarlathotep” (1920), and “The Call of Cthulhu” were all inspired, at least in part, by nightmares, and Lovecraft’s letters often contain lengthy descriptions of his dreams, one of which his friend Frank Belknap Long incorporated into his novel The Horror from the Hills (1931). Dreams and nightmares, moreover, play prominent roles in several of Lovecraft’s most important works, including “The Call of Cthulhu,” in which the monstrous Cthulhu communicates with the human race through dreams, and “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932), in which Walter Gilman visits another dimension in his sleep. Several more stories, including Lovecraft’s novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927), take place in dreamland.

LOW LATIN: “Low Latin” usually refers to the Latin written in the Middle Ages, which differs significantly from the Latin of classical Rome. According to Lovecraft’s “The History of the Necronomicon” (1927), the copy the narrator consults was translated into Latin by Olaus Wormius in 1228, more than seven-hundred years after the fall of Rome. 

NYARLATHOTEP I

Nyarlathotep . . . the crawling chaos . . . I am the last . . . I will tell the audient void. . . .


ORIGINS: Encouraged by W. Paul Cook (1881-1948), Lovecraft resumed writing fiction in the summer of 1917, an activity he had neglected for almost a decade. Over the course of the next four years, Lovecraft wrote an enormous number of short stories, many of them inspired by the works of his mentors Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and Lord Dunsany (1878-1957). His productivity increasing every year, Lovecraft completed four stories in 1917, two in 1918, eight in 1919, and twelve in 1920. Starting in 1923 with “The Rats in the Walls,” his stories began to increase in length and in complexity, and as a result, he wrote fewer and fewer each year. In 1924, for instance, he completed only three short stories: “Deaf, Dumb, and Blind,” “Under the Pyramids,” and “The Shunned House.” 

The sheer number of stories that Lovecraft penned during this period suggests that he was exploring his new medium with enthusiasm, a theory supported by the wide variety of styles he used. In late 1920, at the height of this period of experimentation, Lovecraft wrote “Nyarlathotep,” one of his only prose poems. Like so many of Lovecraft’s early stories, including “Dagon” (1917), “Polaris” (1918), and “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1919), “Nyarlathotep” was inspired by a dream: 

Nyarlathotep is a nightmare—an actual phantasm of my own, with the first paragraph written before I fully awaked. I have been feeling execrably of late—whole weeks have passed without relief from headache and dizziness, and for a long time three hours was my utmost limit for continuous work. (I seem better now.) Added to my steady ills was an unaccustomed ocular trouble which prevented me from reading fine print—a curious tugging of nerves and muscles which rather startled me during the weeks it persisted. Amidst this gloom came the nightmare of nightmares—the most realistic and horrible I have experienced since the age of ten—whose stark hideousness and ghastly oppressiveness I could but feebly mirror in my written phantasy. . . . The first phase was a general sense of undefined apprehension—vague terror which appeared universal. I seemed to be seated in my chair clad in my old grey dressing-gown, reading a letter from Samuel Loveman. The letter was unbelievably realistic—thin, 8½ X 13 paper, violet ink signature, and all—and its contents seemed portentous. The dream-Loveman wrote:

“Don’t fail to see Nyarlathotep if he comes to Providence. He is horrible—horrible beyond anything you can imagine—but wonderful. He haunts one for hours afterward. I am still shuddering at what he showed.”

NYARLATHOTEP II

I do not recall distinctly when it began, but it was months ago. The general tension was horrible. To a season of political and social upheaval was added a strange and brooding apprehension of hideous physical danger; a danger widespread and all-embracing, such a danger as may be imagined only in the most terrible phantasms of the night. I recall that the people went about with pale and worried faces, and whispered warnings and prophecies which no one dared consciously repeat or acknowledge to himself that he had heard. A sense of monstrous guilt was upon the land, and out of the abysses between the stars swept chill currents that made men shiver in dark and lonely places. There was a daemoniac alteration in the sequence of the seasons—the autumn heat lingered fearsomely, and everyone felt that the world and perhaps the universe had passed from the control of known gods or forces to that of gods or forces which were unknown.


I DO NOT RECALL DISTINCTLY WHEN IT BEGAN: Lovecraft, having just awoken from a horrible dream, wrote the passage above while he was still half asleep:

I was in great pain—forehead pounding and ears ringing—but I had only one automatic impulse—to write, and preserve the atmosphere of unparalleled fright; and before I knew it I had pulled on the light and was scribbling desperately. Of what I was writing I had very little idea, and after a time I desisted and bathed my head. When fully awake I remembered all the incidents but had lost the exquisite thrill of fear—the actual sensation of the presence of the hideous unknown. Looking at what I had written I was astonished by its coherence. It comprises the first paragraph of the enclosed manuscript, only three words having been changed. I wish I could have continued in the same subconscious state, for although I went on immediately, the primal thrill was lost, and the terror had become a matter of conscious artistic creation. . . .

Despite Lovecraft’s dissatisfaction with the rest of “Nyarlathotep,” which he dismisses as “a matter of conscious artistic creation,” the story’s different sections fit together seamlessly. There is no discernible difference between the passages he wrote while fully awake and the ones he wrote while in a “subconscious state.”

NYARLATHOTEP III

And it was then that Nyarlathotep came out of Egypt. Who he was, none could tell, but he was of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh. The fellahin knelt when they saw him, yet could not say why. He said he had risen up out of the blackness of twenty-seven centuries, and that he had heard messages from places not on this planet. Into the lands of civilisation came Nyarlathotep, swarthy, slender, and sinister, always buying strange instruments of glass and metal and combining them into instruments yet stranger. He spoke much of the sciences—of electricity and psychology—and gave exhibitions of power which sent his spectators away speechless, yet which swelled his fame to exceeding magnitude. Men advised one another to see Nyarlathotep, and shuddered. And where Nyarlathotep went, rest vanished; for the small hours were rent with the screams of nightmare. Never before had the screams of nightmare been such a public problem; now the wise men almost wished they could forbid sleep in the small hours, that the shrieks of cities might less horribly disturb the pale, pitying moon as it glimmered on green waters gliding under bridges, and old steeples crumbling against a sickly sky.


EGYPT: Though ancient Egypt was never as dear to his heart as ancient Rome, Lovecraft found the civilization, and its unique culture, fascinating, and he refers to it frequently in his correspondence. He even claims, in a letter to Rheinhart Kleiner (1892-1949), that he used to dream of Egypt when he was a child:

Space, strange cities, weird landscapes, unknown monsters, hideous ceremonious, Oriental and Egyptian gorgeousness, and indefinable mysteries of life, death, and torment, were daily—or rater nightly commonplaces to me before I was six years old. Today it is the same, save for a slightly increased objectivity.

Considering Lovecraft’s lifelong interest in “Oriental and Egyptian gorgeousness,” it is not surprising that references to ancient Egypt appear in a great many of his stories, including “The Green Meadow” (1919), “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (1919), “The Temple” (1920), “Poetry and the Gods” (1920), “Nyarlathotep” (1920), “The Nameless City” (1921), “The Outsider” (1921), “The Rats in the Walls” (1923), “The Festival” (1923), “Under the Pyramids” (1924), “Cool Air” (1926), The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), “Medusa’s Coil” (1930), “Out of the Aeons” (1933), “The Tree on the Hill” (1934), “The Shadow out of Time” (1935), and “The Haunter of the Dark” (1935). 

And yet, despite the number of allusions to Egypt in Lovecraft’s fiction, only one of his stories, “Under the Pyramids,” actually takes place there.

NYARLATHOTEP VI

I believe we felt something coming down from the greenish moon, for when we began to depend on its light we drifted into curious involuntary formations and seemed to know our destinations though we dared not think of them. Once we looked at the pavement and found the blocks loose and displaced by grass, with scarce a line of rusted metal to shew where the tramways had run. And again we saw a tram-car, lone, windowless, dilapidated, and almost on its side. When we gazed around the horizon, we could not find the third tower by the river, and noticed that the silhouette of the second tower was ragged at the top. Then we split up into narrow columns, each of which seemed drawn in a different direction. One disappeared in a narrow alley to the left, leaving only the echo of a shocking moan. Another filed down a weed-choked subway entrance, howling with a laughter that was mad. My own column was sucked toward the open country, and presently felt a chill which was not of the hot autumn; for as we stalked out on the dark moor, we beheld around us the hellish moon-glitter of evil snows. Trackless, inexplicable snows, swept asunder in one direction only, where lay a gulf all the blacker for its glittering walls. The column seemed very thin indeed as it plodded dreamily into the gulf. I lingered behind, for the black rift in the green-litten snow was frightful, and I thought I had heard the reverberations of a disquieting wail as my companions vanished; but my power to linger was slight. As if beckoned by those who had gone before, I half floated between the titanic snowdrifts, quivering and afraid, into the sightless vortex of the unimaginable.


DISPLACED BY GRASS: This scene, in which Lovecraft alludes to the inexplicable destruction of the narrator’s civilization, is one of the most subtle in his oeuvre. As it progresses, Lovecraft’s descriptions become less and less concrete. By the end of the passage, he can only speak cryptically of the “sightless vortex of the unimaginable.” As nonsensical as that phrase may sound, it reflects the nature of Lovecraft’s dream, which ended with him being “drawn into the black yawning abyss between the snows, and whirled tempestuously about in a vortex with shadows that once were men!”