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 X

Then suddenly I saw it. With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.

Of my frantic ascent of the slope and cliff, and of my delirious journey back to the stranded boat, I remember little. I believe I sang a great deal, and laughed oddly when I was unable to sing. I have indistinct recollections of a great storm some time after I reached the boat; at any rate, I know that I heard peals of thunder and other tones which Nature utters only in her wildest moods.


A SLIGHT CHURNING: In many ways, the scene here mirrors the awakening of Cthulhu in Lovecraft’s later tale “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926). Unlike the creature in “Dagon,” however, Great Cthulhu actually pursues the humans who have accidentally awakened him from his long slumber:  

So only Briden and Johansen reached the boat, and pulled desperately for the Alert as the mountainous monstrosity flopped down the slimy stones and hesitated floundering at the edge of the water.

Steam had not been suffered to go down entirely, despite the departure of all hands for the shore; and it was the work of only a few moments of feverish rushing up and down between wheel and engines to get the Alert under way. Slowly, amidst the distorted horrors of that indescribable scene, she began to churn the lethal waters; whilst on the masonry of that charnel shore that was not of earth the titan Thing from the stars slavered and gibbered like Polypheme cursing the fleeing ship of Odysseus. Then, bolder than the storied Cyclops, great Cthulhu slid greasily into the water and began to pursue with vast wave-raising strokes of cosmic potency.

VAST: How big is the creature? If, as Lovecraft says elsewhere, a whale is only a “little larger,” the creature the narrator decries could weigh as much as 100 tons, the average weight of a blue whale. Of course, Lovecraft could be referring to a much smaller species, the smallest of which are not much larger than dolphins.

POLYPHEMUS: One of the most memorable monsters in The Odyssey, the giant Polyphemus captures Odysseus and his men and, after eating two of them, imprisons them in his cave. Odysseus manages to escape by drugging Polyphemus and poking out his one eye with a wooden stake. Homer describes Polyphemus and his brethren as a savage race, contemptuous of civilization’s customs:   

The land of Cyclops first, a savage kind,
Nor tamed by manners, nor by laws confined:
Untaught to plant, to turn the glebe, and sow,
They all their products to free nature owe:
The soil, untill’d, a ready harvest yields,
With wheat and barley wave the golden fields;
Spontaneous wines from weighty clusters pour,
And Jove descends in each prolific shower,
By these no statues and no rights are known,
No council held, no monarch fills the throne;
But high on hills, or airy cliffs, they dwell,
Or deep in caves whose entrance leads to hell.
Each rules his race, his neighbour not his care,
Heedless of others, to his own severe.

I THINK I WENT MAD THEN: Just as the mere sight of Dagon drives the narrator to madness, the sight of Cthulhu lumbering into the open air instantly kills two men. They die of “pure fright.” A third man, who initially eludes Cthulhu and reaches his ship, makes the mistake of looking back and sees Great Cthulhu pursuing them. His reaction is familiar: “Briden looked back and went mad, laughing shrilly as he kept on laughing at intervals till death found him one night in the cabin whilst Johansen was wandering deliriously.” Why do both men laugh? It may be that, having seen a presence whose mere existence renders humanity insignificant, they realize, as Lovecraft did, that “the world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.”

THE TOMB V

I shall never forget the afternoon when first I stumbled upon the half-hidden house of death. It was in mid-summer, when the alchemy of Nature transmutes the sylvan landscape to one vivid and almost homogeneous mass of green; when the senses are well-nigh intoxicated with the surging seas of moist verdure and the subtly indefinable odours of the soil and the vegetation. In such surroundings the mind loses its perspective; time and space become trivial and unreal, and echoes of a forgotten prehistoric past beat insistently upon the enthralled consciousness. All day I had been wandering through the mystic groves of the hollow; thinking thoughts I need not discuss, and conversing with things I need not name. In years a child of ten, I had seen and heard many wonders unknown to the throng; and was oddly aged in certain respects. When, upon forcing my way between two savage clumps of briers, I suddenly encountered the entrance of the vault, I had no knowledge of what I had discovered. The dark blocks of granite, the door so curiously ajar, and the funereal carvings above the arch, aroused in me no associations of mournful or terrible character. Of graves and tombs I knew and imagined much, but had on account of my peculiar temperament been kept from all personal contact with churchyards and cemeteries. The strange stone house on the woodland slope was to me only a source of interest and speculation; and its cold, damp interior, into which I vainly peered through the aperture so tantalisingly left, contained for me no hint of death or decay. But in that instant of curiosity was born the madly unreasoning desire which has brought me to this hell of confinement. Spurred on by a voice which must have come from the hideous soul of the forest, I resolved to enter the beckoning gloom in spite of the ponderous chains which barred my passage. In the waning light of day I alternately rattled the rusty impediments with a view to throwing wide the stone door, and essayed to squeeze my slight form through the space already provided; but neither plan met with success. At first curious, I was now frantic; and when in the thickening twilight I returned to my home, I had sworn to the hundred gods of the grove that at any cost I would some day force an entrance to the black, chilly depths that seemed calling out to me. The physician with the iron-grey beard who comes each day to my room once told a visitor that this decision marked the beginning of a pitiful monomania; but I will leave final judgment to my readers when they shall have learnt all.


A FORGOTTEN PREHISTORIC PAST: As an antiquarian who often felt displaced in time, Lovecraft longed to project himself into the past. Sometimes, by surrounding himself with relics, he could convince himself, much like Jervas Dudley does, that time had “become trivial and unreal.” Lovecraft considered such experiences, rare though they were, crucial to his emotional well-being:

It so happens that I am unable to take pleasure or interest in anything but a mental re-creation of other & better days—for in sooth, I see no possibility of ever encountering a really congenial milieu or living among civilised people with old Yankee historic memories again—so in order to avoid the madness which leads to violence & suicide I must cling to the few shreds of old days & old ways which are left to me. Therefore no one need expect me to discard the ponderous furniture & paintings & clocks & books which help to keep 454 always in my dreams. When they go, I shall go, for they are all that make it possible for me to open my eyes in the morning or look forward to another day of consciousness without screaming in sheer desperation & pounding the walls & floor in a frenzied clamour to be waked up out of the nightmare of “reality” & my own room in Providence.

At times, even when he was not trying to mentally recreate “other & better days,” Lovecraft would be struck by the permanence of the past, an impression often engendered by bucolic scenes that recalled the New England of his youth:

There is in certain ancient things a trace
Of some dim essence—more than form or weight;
A tenuous aether, indeterminate,
Yet linked with all the laws of time and space.
A faint, veiled sign of continuities
That outward eyes can never quite descry;
Of locked dimensions harbouring years gone by,
And out of reach except for hidden keys.

It moves me most when slanting sunbeams glow
On old farm buildings set against a hill,
And paint with life the shapes which linger still
From centuries less a dream than this we know.
In that strange light I feel I am not far
From the fixt mass whose sides the ages are.

THE BEGINNING OF A PITIFUL MONOMANIA: In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), young Ward, who also displays an unwholesome interest in the past, is diagnosed with a similar illness, described as a “dark mania,” and confined in an insane asylum. Indeed, several of Lovecraft’s characters are driven mad by their studies, including Sir Wade Jermyn of “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1920), who possesses an “intellectual zeal amounting almost to a mania,” and Herbert West of “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922), whose “scientific zeal” degenerates into “an unhealthy and fantastic mania.”