Saturday, April 6, 2013

Fiction Review: "Dagon," H. P. Lovecraft

This review was first published on Pol Culture.

“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence--whether much that is glorious--whether all that is profound--does not spring from disease of thought--from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their grey visions they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in awaking, to find they have been upon the verge of the great secret.”

-- Edgar Allan Poe, “Eleonora”

The short story “Dagon” was H. P. Lovecraft’s second effort as a professional writer. Drafted in 1917, it initially saw print in the November 1919 issue of The Vagrant. It’s a major step up from “The Tomb,” his first effort. Edgar Allan Poe is a conspicuous influence on these stories, and in “The Tomb” Lovecraft let that influence overwhelm him. As ersatz Poe goes, it’s fine, but one may find it not worth much discussion beyond that. “Dagon,” on the other hand, shows him going beyond the Poe influence. The conventions of the earlier writer’s work serve as a springboard into territory that seems much more Lovecraft’s own.

In “Dagon,” Poe’s influence can certainly be seen with the story’s protagonist and framing device. As in “The Black Cat,” “William Wilson,” and other Poe stories, the narrator is a disturbed, paranoid misanthrope. Lovecraft provides plenty of indications that his perspective is not necessarily trustworthy: he’s a morphine addict, he’s prone to waking dreams even without the drug, and the story’s central episode could very well be a memory of a hallucination. Lovecraft also follows Poe’s frequent conceit of having the story be the protagonist’s written account of what has happened.

The most profound debt is stylistic. The success of “Dagon,” as with a good deal of Poe’s work, relies on the reader’s sympathy with the attitude expressed in the epigraph above. The reader has to want to believe in the narrator’s madness--that the narrator’s perspective will take one into uncharted experience, and perhaps to the most sublime epiphanies. Towards that end, both writers employ a headlong, even feverish prose of considerable urgency. One is made to feel the narrator continues in the path he goes because his compulsions give him no choice.

The protagonist of “Dagon” certainly fits into this mold. His tale is presented in the context of a suicide note, and the reason for his self-destructiveness is his inability to put the memories he relates behind him. He was a sailor whose ship was captured by the Germans in the early days of World War I. He escaped the Germans, but he was effectively a castaway: alone on the sea in a small boat with provisions. After many days and perhaps weeks, he awoke one morning to find his boat grounded. It was on an island developing from hardening muck. He assumed it to be an upheaval from the ocean floor, and after a few days he set off on foot in hopes of rescue. During his trek, he came across totems from what appeared to be an underwater civilization. His journey ended after he discovered a horrifying truth about the members of that civilization. That discovery is the memory that dogs him. It’s hard to imagine a tale in which the stakes are higher for the protagonist. He began with a quest for survival, and ends trying to flee horrors he cannot escape.

Lovecraft’s handling of that quest and its climactic epiphany is where he breaks from Poe and moves into his own territory. Poe was a key figure in American Romanticism. With regard to aesthetics, the movement valued the imaginative over the rational, and a key aspect was seeing nature and the other trappings of life in spiritual terms. In Poe’s work, places, objects, and landscapes are often imbued with a sense of the uncanny; they’re sources of awe and wonder, but in a way that frequently translates them into harbingers of portent and fear. But for all of Poe’s flirtations with the supernatural, he rarely took the leap all the way into fantasy. Lovecraft, on the other hand, takes the fear-charged trappings to a new level of intensity. He also makes fantasy a central aspect of his material. One might say he even moves beyond fantasy and into myth.

The landscapes of the island in “Dagon” are just one example of Lovecraft taking Romantic conventions and giving them his own subversive spin. The plains and canyons he describes recall the vast expanses characteristic of a Romantic artist such as Doré. But they only recall the grandeur of that imagery in the most general way. Doré’s grandeur is a trope for the presence of the divine. Lovecraft’s functions as a trope for the unholy and the forsaken. The island is an utterly arid environment, and the sun, so often a symbol of life and hope in Romantic work, is here a pummeling enemy to be shunned. The ground is the stuff of revulsion: slimy, coagulating muck, teeming with rot, and “putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish.” One can only imagine the smell; the only thing that distracts from the stench might be the presence of bile on one’s throat and tongue. Romantic imagery typically promotes a rapport with Nature; Lovecraft’s emphatically evokes alienation.

The most distinct feature of “Dagon” (and one gathers it continued as a central aspect of Lovecraft’s work) is his venturing into mythic material. When one reads a post-classical/pre-modern work such as The Divine Comedy, one cannot help but wonder what happened to the pagan gods of classical literature. Dante has several figures from Greek and Roman legend appear in his poem, but the gods are nowhere to be found. The major Romantic writers and artists might include those figures in their work, but they did so in a way that evaded the question--the gods would be presented in the context of the original material, or in settings contemporaneous with it. In the climax and closing of “Dagon,” Lovecraft addresses the question head on. The god he presents is one he created, but it stands in for all of them. (Lovecraft also indirectly identifies the god with one mentioned in the Old Testament, so it’s not one entirely removed from those in classical literature.) The story doesn’t quite say why the gods disappeared, but it makes clear that while absent, they are still very much out there. And on a strikingly portentous note, the story suggests they are looking to return with less than peaceful intentions. Lovecraft not only turns the Romantic embrace of Nature on its head, he subverts its ideal of unity with the divine as well. The relationship he sees is one of antagonists and conflict.

Lovecraft’s suggestion of gods exiled to a world apart from humanity, and planning to return in the future, is perhaps the most resonant aspect of “Dagon.” It’s a feature the story shares with the fiction of Robert E. Howard, who became a peer and friend to Lovecraft over a decade later. Howard, though, presents the idea in the context of heroic adventure fiction, so one pretty much knows any development he offers is ultimately going to prove reactionary. With Howard, the idea’s fascination is in seeing how Conan the Barbarian or another hero handles a situation in which he’s way over his head. But the conventions of the heroic adventure genre will prevail: the hero will triumph over the less-than-benevolent gods, or if he falls, he will do so ensuring the gods will be permanently contained. Lovecraft offers no such reassurance; the implication of “Dagon” is that an apocalypse is coming. In Lovecraft's hands, the basic idea could well prove a visionary one. He plays on myth in the story, and sets the stage for a powerful fictional mythology of his own.

He also sets the stage for becoming a figure of comparable stature to Poe. With “Dagon,” Lovecraft takes the crucial step of becoming a significant artist in his own right. He confronts a powerful and admired predecessor, begins with the premises of that predecessor’s game, and then finds his own game by changing the rules. Settings charged with fear give way to those that embody alienation and revulsion. Hints of the supernatural are transformed into the presence of an antagonistic divine. I’m not sure I would call “Dagon” a great story, but it’s definitely an example of an author finding and articulating an individual vision. If it isn’t great, it comes very close.

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