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.”

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.