The Lovecraft Reread

Shell Shock and Eldritch Horror: “Dagon”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories. Today we’re looking at “Dagon,” written in July 1917 and first published in the November 1919 issue of The Vagrant. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.

Summary: The narrator is about to run out of morphine, and unable to afford more. Rather than face life without it, he plans to hurl himself from his garret window. He’s no weakling: when he tells his story, you’ll understand why he must have forgetfulness or death.

Early in WWI, his ship’s taken captive by Germans. They treat their prisoners gently—so gently that he escapes.

That’s probably because they’re not worried about letting a guy who can’t navigate “escape” on a tiny boat in the middle of the Pacific. He drifts for days—then finally awakens to find his boat grounded in a putrid quagmire of black slime, barren save for the carcasses of rotting fish. He theorizes that some volcanic upheaval has lifted an ancient piece of ocean floor, exposing lands drowned for millions of years.

The ground dries during the day—soon it should be possible to travel. He prepares a pack and sets out, looking for the vanished sea and possible rescue. (Because there’s always someone—or something—to rescue you on a recently risen island.)

He goes west, heading towards a hummock that rises above the rest of the barren, featureless plain (covered in rotting fish). By the fourth evening he reaches its base, where he sleeps. His dreams are wild visions, and he wakes in a cold sweat.

But he now realizes that it’s far cooler and more pleasant to travel at night, and sets out to ascend the mound (but not The Mound, which would be worse). The unbroken monotony of the plain has been a horror—but not so great a horror as reaching the top and seeing the chasm that falls away on the other side, too deep for moonlight to penetrate. The slope has plenty of good handholds, and urged on by curiosity he descends to stand on the edge of the abyss.

On the opposite slope stands a giant white stone—and though it’s been underwater since the world was young, its contours aren’t entirely natural. It’s clearly a monolith (but not The Monolith, which would be worse)—perhaps religious—shaped by thinking creatures.

As the moon rises, he examines it with a mixture of fear and scientific wonder. It’s covered with marine hieroglyphs, and bas-reliefs of humanoid figures with webbed feet, bulging eyes, and other, less pleasant features. The figures seem to be out of proportion, for there’s a carving of one killing a whale not much bigger than itself. He decides they must be the gods of some pre-Neanderthal seafaring tribe.

But then, he sees it. A giant figure, like those in the carvings, emerges from the water, darts to the monolith, and flings scaly arms around the edifice. It bows its head and makes “certain measured sounds.”

The narrator remembers little of his mad scramble back to the boat. He recalls singing, and laughing, and a great storm. When he comes to himself, he’s in a hospital in San Francisco. The sea captain who rescued him paid little attention to his delirious rantings, and he doesn’t press the issue. Later, he asks an ethnologist about the Philistine legend of the fish-god Dagon, but gets no useful answers.

But at night, especially when the moon is gibbous and waning, he sees it. Morphine only helps occasionally—but has addicted him thoroughly. He wonders sometimes if his vision of the slimy plain, the monolith, the creature, were only feverish hallucination. But his visions are too hideous and certain to truly believe this. He shudders to think of the creatures that crawl on slime of the ocean floor, worshipping their ancient idols and carving their own “detestable likenesses” in stone.

I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind—of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium.

The end is near. I hear a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it. It shall not find me. God, that hand! The window! The window!”

What’s Cyclopean: The monolith. Plus, as Anne points out, there’s an actual reference to Polyphemus.

The Degenerate Dutch: Germans weren’t nearly so “degraded” at the beginning of World War I as they were by the end. Just compare those guys in “The Temple.”

Mythos Making: That’s not quite a Deep One. Is it a Deep One giant? Subspecies? Thing that Deep Ones worship? Does it ever visit Innsmouth?

Libronomicon: There’s that fabulous monolith, with the hieroglyphs—pictographs, really—that we never get to read. Don’t you want to go back and find out what they say?

Madness Takes Its Toll: For all the jokes about sanity points, relatively few Lovecraft characters are actually driven completely mad by their experiences, and even fewer have a “madness” that’s any recognizable mental illness. Here’s one with PTSD, self-medicating with morphine.

 

Anne’s Commentary

In my book, “Dagon” is Lovecraft’s first Mythos story, or at least THE proto-Mythos story. Juvenilia aside, it’s one of his earliest completed works, which makes it the more interesting how many Lovecraftian concepts and stylistic quirks appear here. It features an anonymous narrator who admits to mental instability. However, he wasn’t always unstable—no degenerate or weakling. Nope, he was mentally sound enough to be the officer in charge of his vessel’s cargo, and the only one of its crew with the initiative to escape their German captors. (How scandalized Karl of “The Temple” would have been by this unPrussian laxity!) Like so many of Lovecraft’s protagonists, he experiences wild dreams; indeed, he may have dreamed or imagined the whole central incident. At least he rather hopes he dreamed or imagined it. Yet in the end the reality of the unreal catches up with him, and his written account must end abruptly, not with the customary scrawl but with an unlikely repetition of “The window! The window!” Dude, are you in a hurry or not?

The long-hidden region of wonder and terror is another idea Lovecraft will explore many times, and both wonder and terror are the narrator’s emotions when he encounters it. Though the hidden region is of appalling antiquity, predating Homo sapiens, yet it still has ruins with weird carvings, and denizens of a sort. Their appearance blows the narrator’s mind, and he flees he knows not how, because mind blown. Later, rescuers pay no mind to his babblings. The only authority he dares question is “hopelessly conventional,” so no hope of belief or sympathy there.

And then there are the stylistic hallmarks. The “uns” are represented by “unutterable, unfathomable, unending, unprecedented, unknown.” “Cyclopean” appears, twice if you count the description of the monster as “Polyphemus-like,” invoking the Cyclops Odysseus blinds. Then there’s that moon illuminating the climax, gibbous and fantastical, casting queer reflections and shadows. The moon often acts as a demi-divine and sardonic observer in Lovecraft stories—see “Shadow Out of Time” for the fullest flowering of this conceit.

Specific forerunners of Mythos ideas are also vividly present. You could say “Dagon” provides a tentative outline for “Call of Cthulhu.” In “Call” Lovecraft will fully develop the rise and second sinking of a drowned land mass in a little-traversed expanse of the Pacific, preceded by wild dreaming among human sensitives. Explorers will marvel at the ruins on this Atlantis-revenant, though they’ll have little time to examine them before a living relic crashes their party. And survivors? Well, let’s say that things that should have gone unseen have ways of sooner or later getting rid of witnesses.

“Dagon” even iterates the central Mythos premise that man is not the only or the greatest sentience in the universe, and that his reign may end with a bang rather than a whimper. “I dream of a day,” the narrator writes, “when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind—of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium.” And amidst the universal pandemonium, will not Great Cthulhu raven in joy forever?

The Deep Ones, now. Their literary ancestor must be the creature that embraces the monolith. The webbed digits, the wide and flabby lips, the bulging eyes—sounds like the Innsmouth look to me. The aquatic motifs on the monolith bring to mind those on exotic jewelry associated with the shadowed town. The creature and the carven monstrosities do seem much larger than the Innsmouth Deep Ones. I’m reminded of August Derleth’s “posthumous collaboration” with Lovecraft, “The Shuttered Room.” Its Deep One starts out the size of a tiny frog, having shrunk from years of inanition. By the end of the story, it’s eaten its way back to man-size. I don’t know whether Lovecraft imagined the Deep Ones to be so variable. Gigantic dimensions suit the dream-like and mythic “Dagon,” but it only makes fictive sense for Lovecraft to downsize his amphibious humanoids for “Shadow Over Innsmouth”—after all, they need to live in human-scaled houses and, um, you know, associate with humans. Closely. Uncomfortably closely.

Of course, Father Dagon himself will reappear in “Innsmouth.” Why, he’ll even have an esoteric order named after him!

Last thought: The plain on which the narrator of “Dagon” finds himself stranded must have seemed particularly horrible to Lovecraft. Though a resident of the Ocean State—or perhaps because of that—he apparently had an abhorrence for the sea and seafood and the smell of fish. Nasty mud, putrid with decaying sea beasties, yeah, scary. Innsmouth and Innsmouthers also smell strongly of fish, we’ll later learn. Location, location, location? Not for Lovecraft, that’s for sure.

PS: Just realized that the deeply cleft hummock with the monolith at the bottom, embraced by a fishy creature, surrounded by general ewww may speak (from the sunken city of the author’s subconscious) to the sexual anxiety we first discussed in “Thing on the Doorstep.” As Ruthanna’s commentary will show, this story’s got unexpected depths and currents for so seemingly slight a tale.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Here’s one that I’ve somehow managed to skip in the past—probably why the name “Dagon” didn’t stand out for me on first reading “Innsmouth” nearly as strongly as the more familiar Mythos gods. He doesn’t stand out much here, either, in spite of the title—the connection with the Sumerian deity seems a bit of an afterthought, and doesn’t add much to an effective if xenophobic story.

And man, is it xenophobic. The horrible thing about the fish-creatures is simply that they exist, going about their business, worshipping their gods, even PORTRAYING THEMSELVES IN ART. The horror.

And let’s not forget, like all scary foreign creatures, some day they may rise to take over the world and wipe us from the face of the earth. Why not, we’d clearly do the same thing to them, given the chance. Or at least, Lovecraft’s narrator would.

So my knee-jerk reaction to the narrator is: “Gods, what a xenophobic coward.” He claims not to be weak; I’m not sure how else to interpret his inability to sanely face a moderately alien intelligence, one that shares humanity’s need for religion and art, but shouldn’t particularly be in competition for territory.

But then there’s the contrasting intimation that the narrator lets slip—that his real fear is that humanity, with our horrifying wars, doesn’t actually deserve this world as much as a bunch of slimy prehistoric humanoids. That they’ll destroy us not because they’re monsters, but because we are. This, one of Lovecraft’s first published stories, was written a year and a half before the Great War’s end, and published scant months after. Perhaps one has some sympathy after all.

This species self-hatred is subtler in later stories, but may explain some of the weird terror of other, grosser—and perhaps better—races. The Yith do a lot of nasty things, after all, but they don’t war among themselves. This fits the reference to Paradise Lost as well, and Satan’s fall and attempted climb from the depths. Is humanity the fallen angel, who deserves to fall?

(I was wrong, in my “Color Out of Space” commentary, when I said Lovecraft doesn’t often use religious imagery. It was just easy to gloss over prior to these close reads, as much of Lovecraft’s subtlety—well hidden by his total lack of subtlety on the surface—often is.)

The war also shows itself in the perhaps deliberate similarity between the narrator’s breakdown and the “shell shock” that we were just starting to admit was common among returning soldiers—not merely a rare sign of cowardice. This being Lovecraft, it’s live—if strange—people, not violence, that has such a traumatic effect.

And what about that monster, native to the deepest seas, who comes to the surface solely to worship at its accustomed shrine? There’s awe and gratitude in its prayerful embrace of the monolith, a moment of easy empathy that’s all the more startling given that it probably wasn’t intended as such.

This is something I don’t understand about Lovecraft, and one of the reasons I keep coming back and trying to figure him out. He was as wrong about humanity as it’s possible to be without actually believing that we’re all sessile pebbles—so very, very wrong in a way that usually leads to unreadably bad worldbuilding. “Worldbuilding is a moral act” is one of my tenets as a writer—I tend to believe that a certain self-aware empathy, an awareness of the universe’s awe-inspiring variation, is necessary to write something that even manages a pale shadow of the emotional impact of looking out your window. You don’t always have to like what you see, but you have to know that people who’re different from you exist in their own right, see the world through their own biases, and are their own protagonists.

And yet, in the face of Lovecraft’s absolute fear of the Other, his worlds take on their own multidimensional life, and the (for want of a better word) humanity of his ostensible monsters sometimes shines through in a way that’s inexplicably redemptive. Perhaps even early on there are seeds of what, in his final stories, will become a tentative but explicit acknowledgement that it’s possible to bridge that gap. Do those seeds, rooting underneath the massive xenophobia, help give the Mythos its power?

Excuse me while I rearrange the inside of my head a little. I feel a bit uncomfortable, because I don’t want to take this as an excuse for the massive xenophobia. But it certainly feels like an interesting way of interrogating it.

 

Next week, we move from the Pacific to the Catskills for “The Lurking Fear.”


Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She can’t think of anything new and interesting to say about herself this week, and neither can her wife.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection.The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.

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