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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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.    

HE I

I saw him on a sleepless night when I was walking desperately to save my soul and my vision. My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets that twist endlessly from forgotten courts and squares and waterfronts to courts and squares and waterfronts equally forgotten, and in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyse, and annihilate me.


ORIGINS: After marrying Sonia H. Greene and moving to New York City to be with her in March 1924, Lovecraft all but stopped writing fiction. Distracted by friends, frustrated by his inability to secure a job, and depressed by life in the city, he finished only five short stories during the two years he lived in New York: “The Shunned House” (1924), “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925), “He” (1925), “In the Vault” (1925), and “Cool Air” (1926).

By the time Lovecraft wrote “He” in the summer of 1925, his enthusiasm for New York had evaporated. Disgusted by the modernity the city seemed to celebrate, he spent more and more time searching for old-fashioned houses, streets, and neighborhoods. On August 10, 1925, he roamed the city all night, looking for remnants of Colonial architecture. In the neighborhood of Greenwich Village, he found the relics he had been seeking:

My Greenwich peregrinations included Abingdon Square, Grove St., Grove Court, Barrow & Commerce Sts., the Minettas, Milligan & Patchin Places, Gay St., Sheridan Square, & Charlton St., & embraced many marvellous glimpses of the old times. Once I saw a colonial doorway lighted up, the traceries of transom & side-lights standing out softly against the mellow yellow gleams inside. From Greenwich my route led south along Hudson St. to old New York, (across Lispenard’s Meadows & the filled-in swamp) & I noted the colonial square at the intersection of Canal. Later crossing to Greenwich St., I descended into the most ancient district; noting the Planters’ Hotel, Tom’s Chop House, & the like, & emerging on Broadway to salute St Paul’s & plunge down Ann St. into the heart of Golden Hill—Irving’s boyhood neighbourhood, & the seat of much disturbance during the late disastrous revolt against His Majesty’s government. I passed under the Brooklyn Bridge to Vandewater St., & noted with horror the replacement of a fine colonial row by a damnable new garage, (other excellent colonials have vanished in Greenwich, at Barrow & Hudson Sts.) & doubled back through New Chambers & Pearl, noting beside the former a colonial smithy which had always appealed to me. Proceeding along Pearl toward the Battery, I viewed all the ancient houses & waterfront panoramas as I passed them—remarking incidentally that the old Harpers publishing house has been newly razed. At Hanover-Square, seat of the best British gentry before the Revolution, I lifted my hat in honour of King George the Third; then passing on by the Queen’s Head Tavern—Fraunces’, that is—to those regions of Battery Park where one or two colonial mansions yet linger. 

The long walk invigorated Lovecraft, and for the first time in a long time, he felt like writing:

It was now five o’ the morning, & I had so fully thrown off melancholy by my free & antique voyage, that I felt exactly in the humour for writing. The clouds were dissolving, & another day was done. Should I drag it away in New-York, & lose the keenness of my mood, or keep on in my dash for liberty—gaining fresh strength as I kicked aside the irritating fetters of the usual?

Deciding on the latter, Lovecraft took the ferry to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he purchased a composition book, found an ideal seat at Scott Park, and began to write. By that afternoon, the story was finished.   

PUBLICATION HISTORY: The story was first published in the September 1926 edition of Weird Tales, which also contains stories by Henry S. Whitehead (1882-1932), whom Lovecraft would visit in Florida in 1931; August Derleth (1909-1971), who would found Arkham House after Lovecraft’s death in 1937; and Seabury Quinn (1889-1969), who was, by far, the most popular contributor to Weird Tales. In addition to original works of fiction, the issue also includes reprinted material by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).  

I SAW HIM ON A SLEEPLESS NIGHT: Lovecraft’s early tales, more so than his later ones, often feature unidentified or unnamed narrators. The following stories, sketches, and collaborations are all told by unidentified narrators: “The Beast in the Cave” (1905), “Dagon” (1917), “Polaris” (1918), “The Green Meadow” (1919?), “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (1919), “The Transition of Juan Romero” (1919), “From Beyond” (1920), “Nyarlathotep” (1920), “The Picture in the House” (1920), “The Crawling Chaos” (1921?), “Ex Oblivione” (1921?), “The Nameless City” (1921), “The Outsider” (1921), “The Moon-Bog” (1921), “The Music of Erich Zann” (1921), “Hypnos” (1922), “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922), “What the Moon Brings” (1922), “The Hound” (1922), “The Lurking Fear” (1922), “The Ghost-Eater” (1923), “The Festival” (1923), “The Shunned House” (1924), “He” (1925), “In the Vault” (1925), “The Silver Key” (1926), “The Colour out of Space” (1927), “The Curse of Yig” (1928), “The Electric Executioner” (1929?), “The Mound” (1930), “Medusa’s Coil” (1930), “The Evil Clergyman” (1933), “The Book” (1933?), “The Disinterment” (1935), “The Haunter of the Dark” (1935), and “The Night Ocean” (1936). If not for Lovecraft’s notes, which identify Robert Olmstead as the narrator, “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931) could be added to this list as well. In some of these stories, specifically “He” and “The Festival,” neither the protagonist nor the antagonist are given names. 

MY COMING TO NEW YORK HAD BEEN A MISTAKE: The narrator’s sentiments reflect Lovecraft’s. By 1925, his wife had accepted a position in Ohio; Lovecraft had moved into a small apartment in the slums; and his prospects, which had once seemed so promising, had melted away. For Lovecraft, “coming to New York” was truly a mistake. One wonders, however, how his wife felt when she read those lines.

BABYLONIAN: References to ancient Babylon, the capital of the Babylonian and Chaldean Empires, appear in five of Lovecraft’s stories: “The Nameless City” (1921), “The Festival” (1923), “He” (1925), “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), and “Medusa’s Coil” (1930). In the passage above, Lovecraft uses the word “Babylonian,” not to refer to the ancient city, but as a synonym for “evil” or “degenerate.” Just as, in Lovecraft’s mind, New York is the antithesis of Providence, in the book of Revelation, Babylon is the antithesis of Jerusalem. It is a cursed city.