|Publication History||Dagon (short story)||Copyright|
Dagon is a short story by H. P. Lovecraft, written in July 1917, one of the first stories he wrote as an adult. It was first published in the November 1919 edition of The Vagrant (issue #11).
After reading Lovecraft's juvenilia in 1917, W. Paul Cook, editor of the amateur press journal The Vagrant, encouraged Lovecraft to resume writing fiction. That summer, Lovecraft wrote two stories: "The Tomb and "Dagon".
The story was inspired in part by a dream he had. "I dreamed that whole hideous crawl, and can yet feel the ooze sucking me down!" he later wrote.
Critic William Fulwiler indicates that Lovecraft may have been influenced by Irvin S. Cobb's "Fishhead", a story about a strange fish-like human. Fulwiler has also suggested that Lovecraft took the story's theme of "an ancient prehuman race that will someday rise to conquer humanity" from Edgar Rice Burroughs' At the Earth's Core (1914).
The story mentions Piltdown Man, which had not been exposed by the scientific community as a fraud and hoax at the time of writing.
The story is the testament of a tortured, morphine-addicted man who plans to commit suicide over an incident that occurred early on in World War I when he was a merchant marine officer.
In the unnamed narrator's account, his cargo ship is captured by a German sea-raider in "one of the most open and least frequented parts of the broad Pacific". He escapes on a lifeboat and drifts aimlessly across the sea "somewhat south of the equator" until he eventually finds himself inexplicably stranded on "a slimy expanse of hellish black mire which extended about me in monotonous undulations as far as I could see.... The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish, and of other less describable things which I saw protruding from the nasty mud of the unending plain." He theorizes that this area was formerly "a portion of the ocean floor... thrown to the surface" by a volcanic upheaval, "exposing regions which for innumerable millions of years had lain hidden under unfathomable watery depths."
After waiting three days for the seafloor to dry out sufficiently to walk on, he strikes out on foot to find the sea and possible rescue. After two days of walking, he reaches his goal, a "hummock" that turns out to be a mound on the edge of an "immeasurable pit or canyon". Descending the slope, he sees a gigantic white stone object that he soon perceives to be a "well-shaped monolith whose massive bulk had known the workmanship and perhaps the worship of living and thinking creatures."
The monolith, situated next to a channel of water in the bottom of the chasm, is covered in unfamiliar hieroglyphs "consisting for the most part of conventionalised aquatic symbols such as fishes, eels, octopuses, crustaceans, molluscs, whales and the like." There are also "crude sculptures" depicting:
men—at least, a certain sort of men; though the creatures were shown 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 shown in the act of killing a whale represented as but little larger than himself.
As the narrator looks on the monolith, a creature emerges from the water:
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.
Insane with fear, the mariner flees back to his stranded boat, and vaguely recalls a "great storm". His next memory is of a San Francisco hospital, where he was taken after being rescued in mid-ocean by a U.S. ship. There are no reports of any Pacific upheavals, and he does not expect anyone to believe his incredible story. He mentions one abortive attempt to gain understanding of his experience:
Once I sought out a celebrated ethnologist, and amused him with peculiar questions regarding the ancient Philistine legend of Dagon, the Fish-God; but soon perceiving that he was hopelessly conventional, I did not press my inquiries. Haunted by visions of the creature, "especially when the moon is gibbous and waning", he describes his fears for the future of humanity:
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.
With the drug that has given him "transient surcease" running out, he declares himself ready to do himself in; the narrative is revealed to be a suicide note. The story ends with the narrator rushing to the window as he hears "a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it."
"Dagon" is often not counted as one of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos stories, but it is the first of Lovecraft's stories to introduce a Cthulhu Mythos element — the sea deity Dagon itself.
The creature that appears in the story is often identified with the deity Dagon, but the creature is not identified by that name in the story "Dagon", and seems to be depicted as a typical member of his species, a worshipper rather than an object of worship. Nor is it likely that Lovecraft intends "Dagon" to be the name used by the deity's nonhuman worshippers; as Robert M. Price points out, "When Lovecraft wanted to convey something like the indigenous name of one of the Old Ones, he coined some unpronounceable jumble".
Price suggests that readers of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" may be mistaken as to the identity of the "Dagon" worshipped by that story's Deep Ones: in contrast to the Old Ones' alien-sounding names, "the name 'Dagon' is a direct borrowing from familiar sources, and implies that Obed Marsh and his confederates had chosen the closest biblical analogy to the real object of worship of the deep ones, namely Great Cthulhu."
Lin Carter, who thought "Dagon" an "excellent" story, remarked that it was "an interesting prefiguring of themes later to emerge in [Lovecraft's] Cthulhu stories. The volcanic upheaval that temporarily exposes long-drowned horrors above the waves, for example, reappears in "The Call of Cthulhu" (1926)". Other parallels between the two stories include a horrifying tale told by a sailor rescued at sea; a gigantic, sea-dwelling monster (compared to Polyphemus in each tale); an apocalyptic vision of humanity's destruction at the hands of ancient nonhuman intelligences; and a narrator who fears he is doomed to die because of the knowledge he has gained. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz call the latter story "manifestly an exhaustive reworking of 'Dagon'".
In "The Call of Cthulhu", one of the newspaper clippings collected by the late Professor Angell mentions a suicide from a window that may correspond to the death of the narrator of "Dagon".