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.”

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.