One of Lovecraft’s perennial – and most famous – sources of horror was the sea. Like so many of his predecessors and influences, he viewed it as both an alien realm of misanthropic threats, and a handy symbol for the vile muck of the human unconscious. He is specifically indebted to Edgar Allan Poe and William Hope Hodgson for the following story – one which is arguably his first great story. Poe defined the nautical horror story in two tales (“MS. Found in a Bottle” and “Into the Maelstrom”) and one novel (The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym).
All three involve a young man who is unexpectedly sucked into an uncanny misadventure as a result of a sudden calamity, and all three see their protagonist undergo a violent, existential paradigm shift that shatters their comfortable understanding of the human experience. Shipwrecks, freak typhoons, whirlpools, ghost ships, mutinies, cannibalism, alternate dimensions, frozen time, cosmic terror, and insanity buffet these pitiful heroes until they are shoved off a philosophical and psychological ledge, forever setting them apart from the rest of humanity as a doomed, undying sentinel (not unlike the anti-hero of the first great work of nautical horror, Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”).
Hodgson picked up where Poe left off: the genre which for Poe had been a foray would become his specialty. No major writer of the macabre was so comfortable with maritime horror as the failed sailor, William Hope Hodgson. Following a traumatic first voyage during which, as a young greenhorn, he spent several years being bullied, abused, and possibly sexually assaulted, he grew to despise the sea, viewing it as the antithesis of humanity and civilization. It was cold, merciless, depraved, and littered with endless armies of slimy mutants, tentacled abominations, and savage parasites.
His stories – most notably “A Tropical Horror” and “The Voice in the Night” – often followed the tragic stories of noble shipwreck survivors who are gradually robbed of their innocence and hope by the devils of natural selection: parasitic fungi, phallic sea serpents, ravenous octopi, repulsive mutations, carnivorous mold, and apocalyptic typhoons. Although the supernatural creeps into his stories from time to time, it is normally unnecessary: Mother Nature, he held, was a vicious madwoman, and her horrors were far worse than any phantom.
Like these two predecessors in particular, Lovecraft has often been caricatured as a smarmy, misanthropic cynic – a bad-ass skeptic’s skeptic and a consummate troll, delighting in bursting the pet philosophies of lesser minds. All three men, however, were deeply disappointed in their lives, and rather than cheering on anarchy and the fall of man, their biographies and writings illustrate a profound sadness in the prospect of a declining civilization. All three were also intensely sensitive (both temperamentally and, specifically, sensitive to criticism), and all three revered – for all their apparent cynicism – the accomplishments of Western Civilization (often to a chauvinistic fault) and cringed to think of what their respective generations were doing to contribute to (or fail to effectively resist) the decline of humanity.
And so, in “Dagon,” we have an excellent introduction to Lovecraft’s primary messages, some of which might surprise readers who expect to encounter either the wholly deplorable racist and misanthrope or the emotionally-impervious incel/atheist bad boy. Aside from its swashbuckling delight in adventure (another trait shared with Poe and Hodgson’s nautical tales) the core tone of this story is one of stunned heartbreak and desperate mourning: mourning for a future decline that the protagonist sees rising up all around mankind from a threat that no one but him seems to detect or care about.
The tale comes to us as a suicide note left by a merchant mariner whose experiences in a lifeboat on the open sea have driven him to morphine-addiction and madness.
By his account, his ship was captured and sunk by a German man-of-war during World War One in one of the most isolated stretches of the South Pacific Ocean (near the site of R’lyeh in the future story, “The Call of Cthulhu”). While the crew is taken on board the German destroyer, he decides to escape one night, and flees in a small boat which is not being watched. The plan is obviously a dangerous one, and he drifts without respite for days, while his supplies dwindle and there is no sign of land.
To make matters worse, he is a terrible navigator (he was a supercargo – a company representative in charge of securing and monitoring the cargo and has no background in seamanship of which we know) and spends his days and nights sleeping and troubled by bad dreams.
One day, after a deep sleep, he awakens to find his boat “half sucked into a slimy expanse of hellish black mire which extended about me in monotonous undulations as far as I could see.”
It appears to be an expanse of the ocean floor, newly exposed by some volcanic eruption or seismic activity. He remains in his craft for three days while the sun dries the muck out until he is confident enough to explore this new island, which is dominated by a tall hill at the center. He decides to head towards the peak and hikes over the gelatinous ooze for two days, despite the “maddening” stench of fish.
Finally, one night, he reaches the crest of the hill and is surprised to find “an immeasurable pit or canyon” on the other side, which the moonlight does nothing to illuminate.
He is instinctively disturbed by the sight and feels as though he is “on the edge of the world; peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of eternal night.” As the night waxes on and the moon climbs overhead, he starts to see that the sides are scalable, and he decides to climb into it to explore what he senses to be some intriguing secret.
As he descends, he begins to see the bottom, and is suddenly aware of some massive, white monument – “a well-shaped monolith whose massive bulk had known the workmanship and perhaps the worship of living and thinking creatures” – at the bottom of the pit where a channel of still, deep water has yet to dry up.
As he nears it, it becomes clear that it is certainly intelligently crafted, as it is engraved with “both inscriptions and crude sculptures. The writing was in a system of hieroglyphics unknown to me, and unlike anything I had ever seen in books; consisting for the most part of conventionalized aquatic symbols such as fishes, eels, octopi, crustaceans, molluscs, whales, and the like.” Far more striking, however, were the depictions of what appeared to be humanoid amphibians:
“I think that these things were supposed to depict men—at least, a certain sort of men; though the creatures were shewn disporting like fishes in the waters of some marine grotto, or paying homage at some monolithic shrine which appeared to be under the waves as well... [T]hey were damnably human in general outline despite webbed hands and feet, shockingly wide and flabby lips, glassy, bulging eyes, and other features less pleasant to recall. Curiously enough, they seemed to have been chiseled badly out of proportion with their scenic background; for one of the creatures was shewn in the act of killing a whale represented as but little larger than himself.”
He marvels at their size and the realism of the engravings, but his wonder melts into terror when something rises from the channel of water at the bottom of the chasm:
“Then suddenly I saw it. With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.”
He barely recalls his desperate escape from the pit or his delirious journey back to the boat, other than to say that he “sang a great deal, and laughed oddly when I was unable to sing.” Eventually, he gains the boat, and a huge storm washes him back out to sea, drowning the slimy island once again.
When he regains consciousness, he is in a San Francisco hospital after being rescued by an American steamer. His saviors had not seen any signs of the island or any volcanic activity. Once released, he seeks out a famous ethnologist hoping to confirm if his story has any basis in mythology – particularly the lore surrounding the Philistine fish-god Dagon – but the scholar is merely amused and dismissive.
Depressed, anxious, and lost in visions of a strengthening submarine civilization, he decides to jump out of his apartment window after finishing this memoir. His final words are:
“I 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 idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite. 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!”
When the United States entered World War One, Lovecraft attempted to enlist in the Army, but his mother humiliated him by revealing underlying medical conditions of his that he had hidden from the recruiter. The next year he attempted to enlist in the Rhode Island National Guard – an assignment unlikely to see combat – but was once again hamstrung by his mother, who used her family connections to block his enlistment. Lovecraft had been inflamed with patriotic zeal from the outset of the war, and was ashamed of being blocked from service by his overprotective parent. Instead, he spent the war on the sidelines – one of many times in his life where he felt like an outsider, detached from the course of history – watching the drama play out. In his estimation, it was a war between civilization and barbarism, and was disgusted by Allied reports of the so-called “Rape of Belgium.” Before he even attempted to enlist, however, it was evident that the war itself was playing out as a global degradation of humanity – something far darker, far more brutal, and far less heroic than any conflict in the recent past.
The slaughter of civilians, sinking of merchant ships without warning or attempts to take prisoners, and the first-time use of mechanized warfare, poison gas, flamethrowers, and machine guns was a far cry from the days of chivalric cavalry charges and tidy, European cabinet wars. World War One symbolized a shift in human character to Lovecraft – one which he had been sensitive to already, and one which he feared was going largely unnoticed. It wasn’t that he was a pacifist or deeply concerned with human rights, but he saw it as a degradation of what Western Society represented to him – order, hierarchies, reason – into something more akin to animals than men. In a vitriolic war-time essay called “At the Root,” he laments the conflict and argues in favor of a strict, orderly military state to prevent all of mankind from succumbing to anarchy, grumbling:
“We must realise that man's nature will remain the same so long as he remains man; that civilisation is but a slight coverlet beneath which the dominant beast sleeps lightly and ever ready to awake. To preserve civilisation, we must deal scientifically with the brute element… Denied anything ardently desired, the individual or state will argue and parley just so long—then, if the impelling motive be sufficiently great, will cast aside every rule and break down every acquired inhibition, plunging viciously after the object wished; all the more fantastically savage because of previous repression. The sole ultimate factor in human decisions is physical force.”
Civilization, Lovecraft feared, was on the decline, and there was little that could be done to stop it. His own inability to participate in the war made him both a failure in his own eyes and an underqualified modern prophet (who, after all, would listen to his forebodings when – unlike Hemingway, Tolkein, Remarque, or Bierce – he had never seen the pandemonium of combat.
In a similar way, the narrator of “Dagon” is not even a combatant (as a super-cargo, he isn’t even a sailor), and barely shares the time-honored indignity of being a prisoner of war before he sets out for his own harrowing adventure – one not against an enemy military, but against the spiritual sickness festering in humanity’s own dark murky heart. The real horror of his discovery (simply put, that the ocean is home to a grotesque but capable competitor-civilization) may lie in a basic structuralist interpretation of the two societies. The world of Dagon is the inversion of the world of Darwin, Dickens, and Descartes – beloved to Lovecraft – and yet it serves, also, as its submerged second-half: a spiritual doppelganger that reveals not just who might eventually overtake “puny, war-exhausted humanity,” but who they actually are underneath that veneer of stability.
As with so many of Lovecraft’s big reveals, the message is less about highlighting mankind’s smallness (not that this is not the top-note experience of reading his fiction), and more – like Poe and Hodgson – about turning the mirror around on us to reveal the sludgy, tentacled mutants we pretend not to be. I immediately think of the two stories I used to title this collection – “The Outsider” and “The Rats in the Walls” – and how both of them ultimately apex in the revelation that their narrator (with whom we have empathized and identified) are actually hideous monstrosities. This is no less the case in Lovecraft’s later fiction (e.g., “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” etc.), and remains one of his most significant recurring themes.
Keep in mind that the narrator of “Dagon” could just as easily be charmed or enthralled. Admittedly, the Dagonites don’t appear to look or smell very lovely, but the discovery of a submarine culture need not be a horrific uncovering at all. Indeed, H. G. Wells wrote about a similar conceit twenty years earlier in his fantasy tale “In the Abyss,” where the lone explorer encountering a fishy fiend is overwhelmed with delight. Wells’ story follows a submariner’s stunning encounter with an intelligent, underwater civilization, and while the story ends in the man’s death on his second expedition (and although his mer-folk are also gruesome, bug-eyed creeps), the general tone is one of awe and wonder.
The reason that Lovecraft’s castaway is far from delighted to meet this gilled kinsman is because of what Lovecraft intends the reader to understand about their appearance: this is what is going on beneath the surface of this horrible war between supposedly civilized states. While humanity descends into the muck of barbarism, our barbarian shadow selves will rise up from the muck to meet and overpower us, and by then we will be too exhausted to resist their siren song of chaos and irrationality.
In his final moments, the narrator has his own confrontation with his personal Dagonite doppelganger, the sight of whose hand (real or imagined) drives him to suicide (an act inherently chaotic and irrational, at odds with the core purpose of either evolution or spirituality), and in this one man’s tragic death, we see a microcosm of what Lovecraft predicts to be coming: an onslaught of madness caused by our culture’s inability to control itself, maintain good order, and reject the impulses of our ever strengthening, ever emboldened shadow-selves.
And you can expect our new, upcoming collection of the best weird fiction from Lovecraft’s Gothic Era (1917 – 1928) soon! Subscribe for updates.