Dagon is a rather skeletal story in terms of understanding and establishing Lovecraft. As one of his earliest tales, not only was it Lovecraft’s introduction to the pulp magazine scene, it’s an easy entry for readers to his style and concepts.
This makes it a very appropriate opening story for the many collections of Lovecraft that are still in print and a fine story to kick off this series.
A lone soldier, depicting these events with his suicide note, escapes capture aboard a German sea-raider in a small boat, then finds himself beached upon a black mass of land thrown up from the sea bed. Exploring the island, he finds mythic carvings depicting the fish god, Dagon, and the enslavement of his worshippers. He sees glimpses of a creature, not quite clearly pictured, and even upon his rescue and return to society, these images haunt him.
Dagon is a short story that keeps hopelessness as the central theme, which is established very well by the opening. We see the narrator describe his fall into madness, relying on morphine to make days bearable until his finances deplete and death seems his only release. There’s no development in this character, he starts, and finishes the story, terrified but that’s the hopelessness that is so central to Lovecraft’s stories. and strengthening that is the real chance nature of his encounter. He didn’t seek this out, it just befell him and that’s a good way for readers to discover Lovecraft’s ideas of the irrelevance of humankind to the larger mysteries of the universe.
As an earlier story, it does show us a few of his writing flaws, particularly with vague imagery. We’re never given a clear picture of the island and we only really have a description of the shrine to help fill in the gaps as to what the creature may be. He references other fiction too, likening the island to being like something out of Paradise Lost, and the shrine is ‘Grotesque beyond the imagination of a Poe or Bulwer’. That can be alienating to readers who haven’t read those works but also it feels rather lazy to call upon the fiction of others to help plug the gap of your own lacking imagery.
The ending also, whilst being very striking as it depicts the monster at his door, doesn’t make much narrative sense. The soldier is taking the time to describe the creature coming to his door as it happens rather than just take to the window. As the soldier takes a leap from his window, the reader must take a leap in logic here, as if the real horror in all of this would be to leave his note unfinished.
Despite these flaws, this is a great story conceptually that Lovecraft would go back to later in the formation of his more celebrated works. The idea of this ancient god from the deep that comes to enslave us is very close to that of Cthulhu and we get the first look at Lovecraft’s discomfort with fish.
He must have really hated fish! A good portion of the story bemoans the smell of dead fish and the strangeness of their eyes. Dagon himself is seen as some type of fish/man hybrid and that’s sets the tone for one of his finer tales, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, though one is of a god and the other is of a town of cultists.
That’s the gem here, for fans it feels like an origin to look back at Dagon as being one of the building blocks to a larger and better world that Lovecraft would go on to create. A fun read to establish bett…hold on.
An email? From my editor?! OH GOD! A REQUEST FOR THIS VERY REVIEW? I’M AN ‘INSUFFERABLE BUFFOON’? THE HORROR. THE UNBEARABLE HORROR! I must flee. FLEE!
Editor’s note – Michael will be back next week with a look at another of Lovecraft’s stories…if I can find him.