On “Dagon” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

The stench bro… the stench.

Like most people who develop an interest in the works of HP Lovecraft, I have never been particularly systematic in my approach to his work; my preferred mode of consumption has always been an audio recording here, a night bus time-killer there, a second-hand anthology devoured, and an e-book purchased but barely skimmed. This being said, I have quite clear memories of my first encounters with most of Lovecraft’s major stories and I can remember being hugely disappointed with “Dagon”.

The story is set in the aftermath of the First World War and revolves around the now-suicidal survivor of a wartime shipwreck. Despite having been rescued and brought back to American soil, the story’s protagonist finds himself haunted by the memory of washing up on a kind of deserted island where he encounters first an ancient monolith and then the creature that inspired its carving. Months or years later, the story’s protagonist is so terrified and obsessed with his experiences on the island that he considers suicide to be the only possible way to put an end to his suffering.

Looking back, it is easy to see why I bounced off the story as, despite only being about eight pages long, Lovecraft tries (and fails) to engage with three really quite substantial sets of ideas:

The first element recalls “The Tomb” in so far as we see the same Edgar Allan Poe-style collapsing of the boundaries between reality, fantasy, and madness. However, while “The Tomb” plays on the fallibility of first-person perspectives and allows the reader to slip and slide between different interpretations of the story, “Dagon” literally has the protagonist announce that seeing the monster drove him temporarily insane. Somewhat amusingly, this is how the movement between sanity and madness is modelled in Call of Cthulhu and I would be willing to bet that this somewhat abrupt and reductive depiction of a descent into madness is what inspired the game’s sanity mechanics. Though Lovecraft is a much better psychologist than this story allows him to be, I do love the way “Dagon” goes straight for the throat with its opening paragraph:

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.

The second element is the first appearance of the god-like sea monsters and inhuman cults that have secured Lovecraft’s presence in popular culture. There’s even an early iteration of the onion skin theory of history whereby humanity’s dominance over the planet is merely a historical interlude, a flickering candle of enlightenment in an abyss of unrelenting, alien darkness:

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.

Lovecraft would return to these ideas and handle them with a lot more panache but it is fascinating to see how little time and energy Lovecraft devoted to these ideas when he first started playing with them. Yes, “Dagon” has a degenerate cult and a god-like sea monster but both elements merit little more than a single paragraph in a story that could easily have been a lot longer. As Joshi suggests in the footnotes to the Penguin edition, this might well be because the primary inspiration for the story was neither madness, nor monsters but a dream.

The third element is by far and away the best executed: Like a perversion of classic desert island adventure stories such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, “Dagon” tells the story of a shipwreck except, rather than finding himself in a tropical paradise, the story’s protagonist washes up on a weird temporary coalescence of volcanic detritus, rotting fish and vegetable matter:

“Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity. There was nothing within hearing, and nothing in sight save a vast reach of black slime; yet the very completeness of the stillness and the homogeneity of the landscape oppressed me with a nauseating fear. The sun was blazing down from a sky which seemed to me almost black in its cloudless cruelty; as though reflecting the inky marsh beneath my feet.”

This is the image that came to Lovecraft in a dream and it is easy to see why it stuck in his mind as it is hard to imagine a landscape more bleak and inhospitable. One of my great loves is moody black and white photography and if you stick a red filter on the lens it blocks out everything other than a red end of the spectrum. What this means in practice is if you take a black and white picture on a sunny day then the blue sky comes out almost completely black. Reading this short description, I found myself picturing an endless plain of glittering black slime weighted down by a burning sun and a sky of the deepest possible black: Imagine the heat. Imagine the stench. Imagine the complete lack of features that would allow you to orient yourself in the landscape. Wherever you look there is nothing but punishing heat gilded by the unrelenting stench of ancient and limitless decay.

This is arguably the first Mythos story that Lovecraft wrote and Dagon (as well as the ideas surrounding him) would re-appear in later stories but the real meat of the story is not so much what the island contains as what it is… a sucking mire of sanity-shredding darkness. Lovecraft tends to be remembered for his baroque writing style and his tendency to soft-peddle descriptive passages in favour of evasive talk of ‘indescribable horrors’, but “Dagon” suggests that HP could quite happily rest an entire story upon a single mental image.

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