The All Has Read Project #1: Dagon
Content Warning: the following post deals heavily with the topic of suicide
Dagon was initially published 1919 in The Vagrant. Among the earliest of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories to see print, Dagon is the first of the author’s Arkham Cycle tales, which eventually formed the basis for the popular Cthulhu Mythos (the modern Lovcraftian brand). In the story, an unnamed narrator recounts his experience of escaping from German captivity at sea in the earlier stages of World War I only to get lost at sea and awaken one morning buried half-deep in a rolling desert of black slime that's littered with the decomposing remains of deep sea creatures. Under a cloudless sky, the narrator wanders in search of the ocean so that he might once again take to the water in search of rescue, but instead he stumbles upon a cyclopean monolith and a terrible giant creature. He loses his mind and eventually comes to his senses in a San Francisco hospital, tortured by his memories and wishing for death.
The story is remarkable for a number of reasons, especially historically, as it is the genesis of one of the more powerful shared mythologies in literature. But there are two notable aspects I want to explore here because I think they help illustrate the pessimistic ideals at the core of Lovecraft’s cosmic stories. Both the fact that Dagon is presented as a suicide note, and the circumstances around naming the story’s titular monster, paint a picture of a world in which we humans are unimaginably significant, born into doom without the knowledge of our bleak circumstances, and cursed to suffer at even the slightest enlightenment to the true nature of all things.
The Reaper is You and The Reaper is Me
Immediately Dagon reveals itself as a suicide note. Plagued by his memories of what he saw during those strange days in the slimy desert, and tormented by apocalyptic visions he now suffers in his sleep, the narrator tells us that he “must have forgetfulness or death.” It’s a bleak choice, for sure, and the message is clear: he needs relief from his newfound knowledge of his place in the world and has reached a point where he doesn’t care how said solace comes.
That a simple piece of metaphysical knowledge can be so traumatic that death becomes preferable to life, and ignorance becomes preferable to enlightenment, is a key trope of cosmic horror. The mental violence of being shown that reality is vastly different than we have come to know it creates a doomy inversion of values. The key passage that illustrates this doomy value inversion in Dagon occurs when the narrator first examines his otherworldly surroundings. Describing his first time awakening in the black desert, semi-submerged in the oozy ground, the narrator notes his unexpected reaction:
“Though one might well imagine that my first sensation would be of wonder at so prodigious and unexpected a transformation of scenery, I was in reality more horrified than astonished; for there was in the air and in the rotting soil a sinister quality which chilled me to the very core.”
The narrator’s self-awareness of this inversion helps us trust in the “sinister quality” of the atmosphere he reports. I personally find it tempting to put otherworldly encounters, even horrific ones, on a fantastical scale, imbuing them with a sense of adventure, awe, and (as the narrator expected, too) wonder. But he is telling us not to trust those instincts because the experience of the fantastic is not positive. In this way Dagon asserts an anti-fantasy, proposing that while everyday life may seem predictable, mundane, and even brutal, any significant deviation from it would be deeply upsetting.
The narrator does kill himself at the end of Dagon, it seems, by jumping from the window (and hilariously writing his thoughts until his final moments). While a fantasy of other worlds is often one a protagonist longs to return to, the black desert of Dagon is a place one can’t be far enough from, and because death is the ultimate distance one can put between themselves and anything else, suicide is a logical solution. That act of killing oneself might not be heroic in such circumstances, but it’s understandable and better than survival. In a Lovecraftian world, under the influence of a doomy value inversion, we should count ourselves lucky there are no portals to other worlds in our wardrobes or owls at our window with acceptance letters to magical boarding schools.
They Are Older Than Tongues, So They Have No Names
As one of the few monsters to bear the distinction of having a story named after it, Dagon has evolved over time to be recognized as one of the lesser big-bad Lovecraftian abominations in the expanded universe generally referred to as the Cthulhu Mythos. Developed from this one headline appearance and a few other mentions in subsequent stories, Dagon the creature is now a considerably well defined entity.
The Sixth Edition Call of Cthulhu role playing game rule book from Chaosium lists Dagon under the “Creatures of the Mythos” section where it is described as part of a gendered pair along with an ostensibly identical monstrosity named Mother Hydra:
“Father Dagon and Mother Hydra are deep ones who have grown enormously in size and ages, each over 20 feet tall and perhaps millions of years old. They rule the deep ones and lead them in their worship of Cthulhu.”
The logical steps to expand Dagon’s identity in such a well-defined manner are all there. Movie adaptations and Lovecraftian stories by other authors have helped flesh-out the vague description given in the story. Even Lovecraft’s bibliography seems to contain enough information scattered through its pages to conclude that Dagon is a very large deep one. (A deep one is an alien fish-man that worships other gods). But there is a small detail that I think is crucial to understanding Dagon as a story that often goes overlooked: the narrator names the beast himself in order to make sense of it.
This is an important distinction because, as we will see in later stories, there are two types of names for the terrible tentacled things in Lovecraft’s fiction—those bestowed by humanity in an attempt to define and control that which would otherwise negate their existence, and those learned from bad dreams. The latter are real names, intrinsic to ancient things like Cthulhu, while the former are really just manifestations of a human’s dying sanity.
In Dagon, what the narrator sees is so difficult to comprehend that he is driven to contextualize it through science, philosophy, and known mythology. The black desert is a volcanic phenomenon, the dead creatures he sees must be undiscovered animals, and the giant fish monster, that’s got to be the Philistine god of fertility, Dagon. Listed in that manner, the desperation is palpable, magnified by the fact that none of the narrator’s hypotheses are corroborated in any way before his untimely exit via the window. His poor mind scrambled to justify all the weird things he experienced through the lens of the humanities and sciences, and before it cracked he pinned an obscure Biblical reference to something he just was unable to comprehend.
Dagon’s name is one more piece of evidence that the world of Lovecraft’s cosmic horrorscape is one that is indifferent to our existence and beyond our comprehension. We can call cosmic terrors what we want, we may impose whatever rules and mythology available to our feeble minds in order to assert our authority over them, but in the end all such efforts are in vain. If the thing humans call Father Dagon is real, the truth is that we’re all better off dead.
Join us again in two weeks when The All Has Read Project examines: The Statement of Randolph Carter