Saturday, May 4, 2013

Dagon (1917) by H. P. Lovecraft

   Dagon is one of H. P. Lovecraft's earliest and creepiest stories. It was inspired by a dream and contains in its few pages many elements that seemed to fascinate and disturb Lovecraft, elements that he returned to later in his greatest tales. We have a vast island that rises from the ocean floor and contains a great horror as in The Call of Cthulhu. We have the unspeakable knowledge of things better not known that permeates Lovecraft's fiction. And of course we later encounter the "Esoteric Order of Dagon" in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, another story that deals with unsavory underwater life. It is interesting to see Lovecraft already working  on these themes and ideas that became so important in his fiction much later on.
   The story begins early in the first world war, when our narrator's ship has been captured by the Germans. This is before the sinking of the Lusitania and the Germans having "sunk to their later degradation." The Germans' discipline was so inexplicably lax that our narrator manages to somehow escape on a well provisioned boat. He ends up drifting aimlessly on the Pacific for days.
   One day he wakes to find himself on muck-encrusted land, his boat lying a few feet away. The space is "putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish." Apparently, while he was sleeping, a vast area from the ocean floor had risen due to some unprecedented volcanic upheaval. He is stuck there, sheltering from the sun under his boat, for three days before the ground is dry enough to walk on.
   Lovecraft does a splendid job describing this scene. One can practically smell the rotting fish and feel the muck sucking at one's shoes. His dream must have been a vivid one because this does feel as if it is a description of a real experience.
   The narrator decides to explore and starts walking. Eventually, one night under a "gibbous" moon, he encounters a huge stone monolith. He is separated from it by a large body of water, but he is close enough to see that it is covered by strange hieroglyphics and odd pictorial carvings. The carvings seem to represent some kind of giant mermen, with webbed hands and feet, bulging eyes and flabby lips (a true Lovecraftian horror to be sure). The narrator just decides that they must depict some kind of gods once worshipped by primitive men when, out of the water, rises just such a monster. Our narrator then does what a Lovecraft character does best in such a situation and immediately goes mad.
   He makes his way back to the boat, somehow ends up back on the ocean, and wakes up in a San Francisco hospital where he has been brought after being rescued by an American ship.
   Was his experience just a dream? If only he could believe so, but he knows better. What seems to be the driving force of his madness is the knowledge that a whole race and civilization of those sea-creatures are living on the bottom of the ocean and can arise at any time. With this knowledge comes the realization that human beings are really not all that special after all. Our narrator has caught a glimpse of the real scale of human beings in the cosmos. It is too much for him, and sadly, his end is a bad one.
   This story is a brilliant introduction to the themes that are so important in Lovecraft's fiction. It also reveals the depth of his great talent even at this early stage. The story can be found in The Call of Cthulhu and other Weird Stories from Penguin, and also Dagon and other Macabre Tales from Arkham House.



  1. Ha! What a depressing-sounding tale. It's been a long time, I'll have to give it another read.

  2. Many people think of the gigantic being encountered by the narrator as the god Dagon himself, but if one pays attention to the story then it's much more likely that it simply represents a typical member of its race. Since this was one the first stories Lovecraft wrote then it seems rather clear that his Deep Ones were based on these beings, becoming human-sized versions of them in later tales.