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Dagon was first penned by Howard Philip Lovecraft in 1917 and appeared in a serial journal, The Vagrant, in 1919 and later was published in Weird Tales during the fall of 1923. As the story opens, the narrator, who is never given a name, is despondent, morose, and suicidal. Our protagonist references to taking a drug which is subsequently revealed to be morphine. The partaking of the narcotic is the only thing that, “Makes life endurable” (Lovecraft 1). At first glance the reader may assume that the narrator is ill, however, nowhere is a physiological illness mentioned, instead it is a psychological ailment that besets the man. The extent of his grave condition is established when he states, “I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain” (Lovecraft 1). He has been scared by a traumatic event this his mind will not allow him to forget, and he, “Can bear the torture no longer” (Lovecraft 1). The narrator is looking for an escape from his mental state and his only way out is to take his own life and swan dive out of his window to the ground beneath him. He is concerned how people will react to his suicide and does not want to be remembered as an abuser of morphine or a “weakling or degenerate” (Lovecraft 1). The writing that our protagonist mentions is his suicide letter and we (as the reader) are the unfortunates that discover the final utterance of this man’s life. Even though this suicide note is written for our behalf, not for sympathy, but for empathy, the narrator informs us that we can never truly fathom why death is his best and only recourse. “When you have read these hastily scrawled pages, you may guess, though ever fully realize, why it is that I must have forgetfulness or death” (Lovecraft 1). In the end the
McBryde 2 narrator reminds the reader, that we are voyeurs, not participants in the horror that he has seen and we will never comprehend what has happened to him. Before our man was a mentally anguished, suicidal, drug addict, he was a sea-farer aboard a ship in the Pacific Ocean that is captured by a German war boat during the early years of World War I. His capture takes place prior to the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. We can conclude this by the passage which states, “The great war was at its very beginning, and the ocean forces of the Hun had not completely sank to their later degradation” (Lovecraft 1). Although the rank of our naval narrator is never given, some passages lead one to believe that he may not be of any high rank, maybe even something as lowly as a galley cook or a simple deck-hand. When he is able to escape his captors by boat, he is adrift on the seas and his nautical abilities come into question. “Never a competent navigator, I could only guess vaguely by the sun and stars that I was somewhere south of the equator” (Lovecraft 1). A more seasoned mariner might have had better bearings. Floating like driftwood for days, and near delirium and exhaustion, something happens to the narrator during a period of unconsciousness. His life raft comes to a patch of land, but it is not the relief our drifter was hoping for. He awakens to “A slimy expanse of hellish black mire” (Lovecraft 1). This mysterious land he has come to is devoid of life and “putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish and other less describable thing” (Lovecraft 2). As if Atlantis itself had arisen from the depths of the ocean, the stranded mariner surmises that due to some seismic or volcanic upheaval this “portion of the ocean floor must have been thrown to the surface, exposing regions which for
McBryde 3 innumerable millions of years had lain hidden under unfathomable watery depths (Lovecraft 2). Lovecraft has set up an interesting backdrop here: a mysterious island, a stranded man, and the terror of the unknown. Lovecraft describes the island covered in decay and ooze in such a way that it makes the reader believe he has been there himself, and in many ways he had, through a dream that would be the inspiration for the story. In a writing entitled, In Defence of Dagon,(which was published in Miscellaneous Writings, by Arkham House publications in 1995) HP Lovecraft responds to critic John Ravenor Bullen, who seemed to find it implausible that our protagonist could crawl through the mire that was described as being so dense. Lovecraft replies with, “The hero-victim is half-sucked into the mire, yet he does crawl! He pulls himself along in the detestable ooze, tenaciously though it cling to him. I know, for I dreamed that whole hideous crawl, and can yet feel the ooze sucking me down” (The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, Joshi, S.T. Editor). This is typical of Lovecraft, as many of his writings are inspired by strange dreams (IE. The Statement of Randolph Carter, Celephais, Nyarlathotep, to cite a few), some elaborate, and some fragmented. Lovecraft moves our man from brooding with fear at the shores of the island, to trekking across the unknown land three days after he crashed. The narrator described the land as a “rolling desert” (Lovecraft 3). After four days of travel he comes to the base of a mountain where he rest before trying the ascent. His rest was plagued by dreams and visions that made him awaken “in cold perspiration” (Lovecraft 3). The writing of these strange dreams that are never described is a plot device that Lovecraft later uses in The Call of Cthulhu, in which we learn that, this hideous creature
McBryde 4 (Cthulhu) can use dreams to influence mortal man. S.T. Joshi, a Lovecraft scholar points out that ““The Call of Cthulhu” is manifestly an exhaustive rewriting of “Dagon””(393). Examining other tales by Lovecraft with similar themes, Dagon could be considered a prequel to his future works. The tale of Dagon begins to reach its climax when our narrator reaches the top of the mountain only to discover a pit which is able to navigate down too. Reaching to bottom of this pit he discovers many strange things; “an object that gleamed whitely in the newly bestowed rays of the ascending moon…its contour and position were not altogether the work of nature…the strange object was a well shaped monolith whose massive bulk had known the workmanship of living and thinking creatures” (Lovecraft 4). Hieroglyphs, sculptures, and cavern pictographs detailing “a certain sort of men; though the creatures were shewn disporting like fishes” (Lovecraft 4) The use and description of these “fish-men” may have been inspired by an earlier short story written by Irvin S. Cobb, entitled Fishhead. Fishhead is the story of an alienated black man who lives in the bayous and has the misfortune of being ostracized because he exhibits fish like features (fish eyes, sloping forehead, webbed hands, etc). In what may have been a homage to that story, which Lovecraft himself was fond of, he (Lovecraft) describes the “fish-men” drawings in Dagon as “damnable human in general outline despite webbed hands and feet, shockingly wide and flabby lips, glassy, bulging eyes and other features less pleasant to recall” (Lovecraft 5). The Fishhead inspiration was originally conceived by critic William Fulwiler and after reading Cobb’s story I agree that the similarities are present between the character Fishhead and the “fish-men” Lovecraft concocted.
McBryde 5 Bewildered by these strange drawing of proto-humans, our narrator is completely unprepared for what happens next. A body of water that flows beneath the canyon churns and out of it erupts a creature that is only described as “Vast, Polyphemus like, and loathsome. (Lovecraft 5). One can easily take from this the sheer size of the creature, especially by the Polyphemus reference, being this was the name of the large Cyclops creature Odysseus faced off against in the Odyssey. What the creature does next allows the reader to conclude that there is still a greater force behind it that remains unseen. The creature “darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung it gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds” (Lovecraft 5). This creature, described as almost octopus or squid like, goes to this shrine and begins to worship at it. Not only does this suggest a high level of intellect but also that whatever god it worshipped is even larger and more powerful than it. Our narrator can take no more, in fact he states, “I think I went mad then” (Lovecraft 6). He races back to his boat and cast off to the open seas again, raving mad. An unknown amount of time passes and he awakens again he is in San Francisco recuperating at a hospital. A ship found his life boat afloat and rescued him from the Pacific. Here is where Lovecraft throws everything into question. The narrator explains that no one seems to know about any land masses rising from the ocean and he does not even bother to bring up the monster. The narrator does seek out the advice of an ethnologist (a individual who studies the human race and its origins), probably in an attempt to discover about the “fish-men”, but to no avail.
McBryde 6 So the question it brings to mind: Did any of this really happen? Did our narrator imagine all of this due to the delirium of being adrift at sea after his harrowing escape? Even he is not certain when he declares, “Often I ask myself if it could not all have been a pure phantasm-a mere freak fever as I lay sun-stricken and raving in the open boat” (Lovecraft 6). At this point there is no way of telling, all that matters is, real or imagined, our narrator is scarred forever (or at least until he jumps out of the window). Perhaps the morphine is wearing off by the end of his sad letter but panic and fear begin to set in as our writer states that he “cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may at this very moment be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed, worshipping their ancient stone” (Lovecraft 6). Merely recalling all this horror sends our narrator over the brink and he beings to hear the monster like thing near his door. He declares “It shall not find me. God, that hand! The window! The window!” (Lovecraft 6). In no way should it be construed that the monster is there out of the water looking for him. He (the narrator) is stark, raving mad, his morphine possibly no longer working, and death his only escape from his mental anguish. According to Lovecraft himself, in a letter written to Reinhart Kleiner, he describes the tale of Dagon as “Involving hallucinations of the most hideous sort” (Lovecraft, August 27, 1917). Dagon latter will become a jumping point for other tales involving these creatures of the deep, most notably in The Call of Cthulhu and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Lovecraft expands greatly from this first story and begins to create a whole pantheon of gods and creatures that will eventually make up his Cthulhu Mythos, which one could consider a Magnum Opus involving many different stories. What makes Dagon such an
McBryde 7 engrossing story is that the reader simply does not know if it really transpired or if it was a fever dream. It is much more satisfying to debate about the outcome of the story than to be directly told by the author.
McBryde 8 Work Cited
Lovecraft, H.P. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Ed. S.T. Joshi. New York: Penguin Group, 1999.
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