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.”



The night of the first revelation was a sultry one. I must have fallen asleep from fatigue, for it was with a distinct sense of awakening that I heard the voices. Of those tones and accents I hesitate to speak; of their quality I will not speak; but I may say that they presented certain uncanny differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, and mode of utterance. Every shade of New England dialect, from the uncouth syllables of the Puritan colonists to the precise rhetoric of fifty years ago, seemed represented in that shadowy colloquy, though it was only later that I noticed the fact. At the time, indeed, my attention was distracted from this matter by another phenomenon; a phenomenon so fleeting that I could not take oath upon its reality. I barely fancied that as I awoke, a light had been hurriedly extinguished within the sunken sepulchre. I do not think I was either astounded or panic-stricken, but I know that I was greatly and permanently changed that night. Upon returning home I went with much directness to a rotting chest in the attic, wherein I found the key which next day unlocked with ease the barrier I had so long stormed in vain.

WHEREIN I FOUND THE KEY: A very similar scene occurs in Lovecraft’s tale “The Silver Key” (1926), which he wrote nine years after completing “The Tomb.” The protagonist of that story, Randolph Carter, has “lost the key of the gate of dreams,” and without it, he can no longer escape modernity by dreaming of “strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas.” Deprived of these visions, Carter becomes depressed and even considers committing suicide. His will to live returns, however, when his long-dead grandfather visits him in a dream:

Then one night his grandfather reminded him of a key. The grey old scholar, as vivid as in life, spoke long and earnestly of their ancient line, and of the strange visions of the delicate and sensitive men who composed it. He spoke of the flame-eyed Crusader who learnt wild secrets of the Saracens that held him captive; and of the first Sir Randolph Carter who studied magic when Elizabeth was queen. He spoke, too, of that Edmund Carter who had just escaped hanging in the Salem witchcraft, and who had placed in an antique box a great silver key handed down from his ancestors. Before Carter awaked, the gentle visitant had told him where to find that box; that carved oak box of archaic wonder whose grotesque lid no hand had raised for two centuries.

In the dust and shadows of the great attic he found it, remote and forgotten at the back of a drawer in a tall chest. It was about a foot square, and its Gothic carvings were so fearful that he did not marvel no person since Edmund Carter had dared to open it. It gave forth no noise when shaken, but was mystic with the scent of unremembered spices. That it held a key was indeed only a dim legend, and Randolph Carter’s father had never known such a box existed. It was bound in rusty iron, and no means was provided for working the formidable lock. Carter vaguely understood that he would find within it some key to the lost gate of dreams, but of where and how to use it his grandfather had told him nothing.

An old servant forced the carven lid, shaking as he did so at the hideous faces leering from the blackened wood, and at some unplaced familiarity. Inside, wrapped in a discoloured parchment, was a huge key of tarnished silver covered with cryptical arabesques; but of any legible explanation there was none.

Though the passage above is far longer than the one in “The Tomb,” the two scenes are fundamentally the same. In both stories, the protagonists dream of a key that can provide them with access to their deepest desires; both men learn where to find these keys from their ancestors; and both men find their keys in the same place—in a “rotting chest in the attic.” The passage from “The Tomb” differs only in that it is less explicit. Lovecraft never states, as he does in “The Silver Key,” that one of Jervas Dudley’s ancestors tells him where to find the key; he merely claims that, after Dudley wakes up, he goes “with much directness” to the chest in the attic that contains the long-desired object. The reader must infer the rest.