H.P. Lovecraft’s Dagon Review

SonicSouls

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“Dagon” serves as an interesting follow up to my “The Tomb” review. That story was written in June of 1917. “Dagon” was written in July of 1917. To paraphrase my “The Tomb” review, the story was more interesting for the plot points and themes it foreshadowed rather than its actual quality. “Dagon” however seems to be a point where Lovecraft started heading towards his eventual path to fame. I should note that this review will make more sense if you have read my “The Tomb” review since I will be referencing certain elements:

Already in the title there’s improvement. “The Tomb” is generic, something you’d have for a first draft. “Dagon” however confers more interest. Who or what is Dagon? Such questions pull the reader into the story.

There’s also improvement in the first sentence:

“I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.”

This bears similarities to “The Tomb’s” opening of the implied insane narrator. However, it manages to be concise and thus act as a more engaging hook. It also foreshadows later stories of characters learning of the eldritch truth and becoming suicidal because of it.

The ensuing paragraph like “The Tomb” describes the character’s feelings and insanity. However, it manages to be more concise and feel less like an aimless ramble. From it we learn that the character is addicted to morphine to relieve the stress. However, he insists that he isn’t a “weakling or a degenerate”. The final line of the paragraph:

“When you have read these hastily scrawled pages you may guess, though never fully realize, why it is that I must have forgetfulness or death.”

I think it’s a bit of a run-on, but it’s still more concise than the opening paragraph of “The Tomb”. It manages to convey a mentally broken man scribbling thoughts as they come to him. Yet it manages to be concise enough so that a person would believably say/write it. From there it goes to describing the events that led to the character’s suicidal thoughts.

Contrast this with “The Tomb” which spends an entire paragraph detailing how humanity can’t fathom everything. “Dagon” hints at a similar point in one sentence. Then, it proceeds to plot progression. “The Tomb” however takes three lengthy paragraphs before there’s a semblance of plot progression. And even then, it’s glacier slow. Because of this, I feel that the beginning of “Dagon” is better paced.

That said, “Dagon” still suffers from run-on-sentence syndrome. This is endemic in Lovecraft’s writing. Some of the backstory about the German U-boat sinking their ship and how they were treated is unnecessary. It never comes up again. I think all that was needed was the U-boat sinking the ship, and the protagonist escaping via a life raft.

The next paragraph develops the protagonist. They weren’t’ a competent navigator. Their only hope was to be seen by a ship, or cast onto the shores of a habitable island. Days passed however and neither happened. Eventually they found themselves washed up on a mysterious desolate island.

Here Lovecraft develops it as someplace peculiar. However, he does it more skillfully than the mausoleum in “The Tomb”. Said mausoleum is described as sinister, yet aside from being chained shut, its just an overgrown mausoleum. The island in “Dagon” however is more memorable. There’s rotting soil, fish carcasses, black slime, and an inky marsh. Additionally, the protagonist has an equally peculiar theory for its creation. He theorizes that through “unprecedented volcanic upheaval”, a portion of the ocean floor must’ve been thrown up. It also must’ve been recently because there was no carrion-eaters. However, the island is so large that the protagonist can’t hear the ocean. Such islands don’t arise from nowhere. Most islands are born from several successive volcanic eruptions, among other events. An island like this appearing from seemingly nowhere gives it an alien quality that sets the mood.

The story then details the protagonist exploring the island, noting its peculiar landscapes. A sense of direness is built upon as he struggles to find anything of note. No food, water, etc. Like “The Tomb” the story focuses on the mental degeneration of the protagonist. However, it seems more believable that a person would slowly lose it from being lost on any uninhabited island. Especially one such as this.

In “The Tomb” however, the protagonist’s descent into insanity seemed confusingly plotted. Suddenly they developed an obsession with the mausoleum. They may or may not be the reincarnation of a relative of the family that once owned the mausoleum. Why were they reincarnated? Why is there a coffin inside with their first name on it? Why do they want to sleep in the tomb? That story had an open ending. This can work. However, the rest of the story felt like it was made up as it went along. This made the ending feel like Lovecraft writing his way out of a corner.

Eventually in “Dagon”, the protagonist sees a peculiar pillar rising from the water. It’s covered in runes and seems to be the remnants of a lost aquatic civilization. Such detail foreshadows stories such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. The latter story seems to have been particularly influenced by this one. Depicted on the pillar are creatures that resemble the people of Innsmouth and the Deep Ones.

Then the titular creature, “Dagon” arises from the water. Though at that point, it’s not given a name. As noted by several people, this parallels with “The Call of Cthulhu” wherein Cthulhu rises from the ruins of a lost civilization.

The protagonist flees, singing and laughing all the way. Singing and laughing uncontrollably are tropes for depicting insane people, especially during Lovecraft’s time. As such, I believe it’s an unrealistic depiction for the majority of people. That said, the protagonist’s descent into madness is more plausible. Being trapped on an alien island, unsure if you’ll ever be able to escape. Suddenly seeing this monster and realizing you’re trapped on said island with it.

Eventually the protagonist ends up rescued, though no one will believe his story. He questions if what he saw was just a sun-induced fever dream. But he concludes that his memory is to vivid for it to have been such. He writes his recollections in the vain hope that somebody will understand. He then hears a knock at the door, and is implied to have thrown himself from the window.

In conclusion, I feel that this is a better written story than “The Tomb”. I feel that the description of the island goes one a bit long. However, the story feels more focused than “The Tomb”. It has better forward plot progression, character development, and a more natural ending. Both share supernatural elements, yet “Dagon” manages to focus and hone them for the story it wants to tell. “The Tomb” however feels unfocused, with the supernatural elements serving as contrivances for the plot to bumble forward. Much like “The Tomb”, “Dagon” has importance for how it would influence its later writing. But while “The Tomb” had more general ideas and themes, “Dagon” begins refining them into what Lovecraft would become famous for.
 

hitmouse

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Well, ok, but...

Is this an effective atmospheric creepy story?
Yes
Is it typical Lovecraft, with his characteristic obsessions and clichees, repetitiveness?
Yes
Is this finely honed literature?
No, far from it. It is Lovecraft, and it does what it says on the tin, very well, in a style that a lot of people regard with great affection. It is good fun and I enjoyed it.

His faults as a prose stylist are clear, but look past those and there is something much more interesting.
 
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