Dagon, written by H.P. Lovecraft in 1917 and first published two years later by The Vagrant, is often credited the first of the Providence author’s Cthulhu Mythos building blocks. Part confession, part suicide note, the short story details a nameless narrator's traumatic experience in the Pacific ocean during the first world war. It’s a fantastic piece of strange fiction, blending history and popular science with hallucinatory nightmare imagery. And while it doesn’t leave one with chills or impending nightmares, thanks largely to its campy purple ending, there is a kernel at the heart of Dagon that functions as true, distilled cosmic horror.
Written in the first person, so as to keep the reader guessing at the veracity of the narrator’s profoundly surreal claims, Dagon sacrifices its shot at an effective ending with its final lines. For Lovecraft, this is an oft cited problem by critics and fans alike. While the beginning and middle acts of stories that employ the possibly insane unreliable narrator trope greatly benefit from the limited perspective given to a reader, there are very few scenarios in which the ending can properly land with a terrifying beat (though there are some fantastic examples of this being written around: House of Leaves solves this with footnotes; The House on The Borderland frames an unreliable narrative inside of yet another; Dracula is a compilation of separate accounts). The most famous Lovecraft fail in this respect is probably in the second last paragraph of The Rats in The Walls, which has its narrator go gibberingly mad during the act of writing.
The same problem is apparent with Dagon. The story concludes with the narrator either hallucinating or witnessing a giant creature he remembered from his nightmare at sea at his window (there is debate among fans and scholars as to which is the case). The cyclopean (in size, not in eye-count) amphibious monster has come for our storyteller, and the last we read is this fantastically Lovecraftian paragraph:
“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 talking to people about Lovecraft’s fiction I often come across the same criticism: most modern readers don’t actually find his work scary. It’s a difficult remark to debate, given the example above. The author frequently undercuts his spooky verite techniques meant to make his stories seem real by ending them with printed exclamation points following words no person would ever sincerely write. No matter how many times I read The Rats in the Walls—and I adapted it into a play—I will never believe it possible to devolve into a gibbering maniac while writing a personal essay. Still, there is a current of horror before these endings that makes them bone chilling, and it’s there that I find Lovecraft’s fiction still resonates as horrific.
The body of Dagon puts its narrator on a plain of black slime that has risen volcanically from the Pacific ocean under his small boat. It is here, under a bright sun in an oppressive sky, that he encounters a great monolith and a giant, ancient creature of the deep worshiping it. After returning home, our storyteller describes the lasting effect of this vision in his justification for killing himself:
“I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may be at this very moment crawling and floundering on its slimy bed, worshiping their ancient stone idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite.”
The sentence recalls some of the most horrific passages of 20th century literature. To me, it immediately evokes the line from Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting For Godot, which was written decades later:
“Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?”
It’s an existential dread at the core of Dagon, and really the majority of Lovecraft’s work, that makes it so effective as horror. Combining a control freak desire to shed light into every dark corner on earth with the usual signifiers of human frailty (giant creatures, the equating of revelation with madness), Dagon reminds us that even right now, something terrible is happening. We are powerless to see the horrors of the moment in our places of safety, and even more important in preventing them. It’s enough to drive a reader mad! Atys . . . Dia ad aghaidh ’s ad aodann . . . agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas ’s dholas ort, agus leat-sa! . . . Ungl . . . ungl . . . rrrlh . . . chchch . . .