Dagon" was written in 1917, it wasn’t published until two years later in The Vagrant, an amateur press publication owned and edited by W. Paul Cook. The magazine published only fifteen issues in ten years, but Cook was an early supporter of Lovecraft’s work and had urged the writer to pursue a professional writing career. Unlike "The Tomb," which was written in the same year and is more of a traditional ghost story, "Dagon" looks forward to the kind of inter-dimensional horrors that the author would become best known for. The two stories are similar, however, in their structure. While "The Tomb" is a confession written by an inmate confined in an asylum, "Dagon" is a suicide note written by a man who is unable to forget the experiences that have driven him to this final desperate act. “By tonight I shall be no more. Penniless, and at the end of my supply of the drug which alone, makes life endurable, I can bear the torture no longer; and shall cast myself from this garret window into the squalid street below.” The author makes it clear that his addiction to morphine has nothing to do with a weakness of character or will, but has been forced upon him by an experience that has left him with only two choices in this world: “forgetfulness or death.” The rest of the note is his recounting of the event and its aftermath.
Lovecraft’s tale is set on the Pacific Ocean shortly after the beginning of World War One, and that immediately reveals some minor problems with the plot. The narrator says he was an agent onboard a cargo ship captured by a German “sea-raider.” But while Germany had a few assorted holdings in the Pacific they were quickly taken over by the Allies at the opening of hostilities and thus Germany’s military presence in the Pacific at the time was probably minimal at best. The event is something that would have been far more likely in the Atlantic, but at the time the Pacific, with its vast stretches of empty ocean, was a much better setting for the events that transpired, and so Lovecraft can be forgiven his artistic license in the quest for a more mysterious milieu. The narrator’s nationality is not specified, though it seems likely that he is British, but in the context of the story it doesn’t really seem that important. Because this was at the beginning of the war, “the ocean forces of the Hun had not completely sunk to their later degradation, so that our vessel was made a legitimate prize, whilst we of her crew were treated with all the fairness and consideration due us as naval prisoners.” The courteous treatment allows the narrator to affect an escape in a small boat, bringing with him a supply of food and water, and this is probably the most difficult assertion to believe. The narrator is not a sailor, but he has obviously been at sea before, and therefore launching out on his own in the vast Pacific seems suicidal, especially given that he is a civilian and not a prisoner of war.
The narrator’s expectations seem no less foolhardy when he says, “I drifted aimlessly beneath the scorching sun, waiting either for some passing ship, or to be cast on the shores of some habitable land.” Again, the only possible reason for this behavior would be if the cargo ship had been carrying arms, and even then it seems impossible that his treatment at the hands of the Germans at the beginning of the war could be worse than the almost certain death of being cast adrift in the Pacific. “Neither ship nor land appeared, and I began to despair in my solitude upon the heaving vastness of unbroken blue.” But all of this transpires rather quickly, and is soon dismissed as the real horror begins. Nearly out of food and water, and similarly out of his mind, the narrator wakes up days later to discover he is not even in his boat anymore, but “half sucked into a slimy expanse of hellish black mire which extended about me in monotonous undulations as far as I could see, and in which my boat lay grounded some distance away.” In the first place, the muck he finds himself in seems to be made up of decayed vegetable and animal matter. “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.” This idea of describing the indescribable is also an early hallmark of Lovecraft’s idea of horror writing, that the reader’s imagination is far more vivid and frightening than anything that could be consigned to paper, leaving it to the reader to flesh out on their own the feelings that these scenes evoke. “I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity.”
Without the sound of wind and waves, the silence of the immense stretch of blackness is a fascinating concept to comprehend. Lovecraft makes a nice scientific postulation here. Since the color of the sky is commonly attributed to the reflection of water on earth, to the narrator the sky, “seemed to me almost black in its cloudless cruelty, as though reflecting the inky marsh beneath my feet.” After crawling back to the boat, the narrator comes up with only one explanation, that somehow the sea floor has risen up above the water and he is now sitting on what was once the ocean floor. Adding to the eeriness, however, is the fact that not only is there an absence of water, but no “sea-fowl to prey upon the dead things.” He decides to stay in his boat the rest of the day, but notices that the sun has dried the surface of the black mud. The next day it’s still not hard enough to walk on, but he readies himself for an eventual journey by gathering his remaining supplies, and on the third day he decides to venture forth, in search of what he has no idea. With only one place on the horizon to the west that seems slightly elevated he heads for that, though it takes him several days to get there. Reaching the base of the rise at nightfall, exhausted, he goes to sleep and has horrible dreams that force him to stay awake until the morning. But then a sudden realization comes upon him. “In the glow of the moon I saw how unwise I had been to travel by day. Without the glare of the parching sun, my journey would have cost me less energy; indeed, I now felt quite able to perform the ascent which had deterred me as sunset. Picking up my pack, I started for the crest of the eminence.”
Once at the summit he can see only blackness in the valley beneath him, which the moon has yet to illuminate. He compares it to the pits of hell, but as the moon gradually illuminates the landscape below he begins climbing down, compelled to discover something, anything that might shed light on what has happened. “All at once my attention was captured by a vast and singular object on the opposite slope, which rose steeply about a hundred yards ahead of me.” The object is made of stone, but “I was conscious of a distinct impression that its contour and position were not altogether the work of Nature.” This is the first real sense of something frightening for the narrator. While he doesn’t know exactly what has happed in general, what he has experienced so far can certainly be explained by some accidental upheaval of the ocean floor to the surface of the earth. But if this object he has seen is not natural, that can only mean it was placed there on purpose. “Despite its enormous magnitude, and its position in an abyss which had yawned at the bottom of the sea since the world was young, I perceived beyond a doubt that the strange object was a well-shaped monolith whose massive bulk had know the workmanship of living and thinking creatures.” It’s a nice bit of imagery, something Arthur C. Clarke would appropriate when his space travelers from “The Sentinel” discover a large, rectangular monolith in a similar valley on the Moon. Rather than being frightened, however, the narrator claims that, “with a certain thrill of the scientist’s or archaeologist’s delight, I examined my surroundings more closely.”
As the moon reaches its highest point in the sky, he can see a large body of water streaming though the bottom of the canyon like a river, and makes his way down to the water’s edge. From that vantage point he can make out inscriptions and sculpture on the stone that certainly associate the presence of sentient beings with the object. The writing is a version of hieroglyphics, though clearly created by a race living in close proximity to the sea, as it is made up of “aquatic symbols such as fishes, eels, octopi, crustaceans, mollusks, whales and the like.” It’s the sculptures that most fascinate the narrator, however, humanoid in form but with aquatic features like large, bulbous eyes, and webbed digits on hands and feet. Very soon, however, he concludes that these figures must depict a sort of ancient mythology of some early race of men as one sculpture in particular has one of these sea creatures portrayed the same size as a whale. Wonderfully, that’s when the climax of the story happens: “Then suddenly I saw it. With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters . . .” It’s an absolutely chilling paragraph that concludes the narrator’s extraordinary experience, and the rest of the story is highly compressed as he makes his way back, half mad, to his boat. He remembers a storm, a downpour of rain, but little else until he wakes up in a San Francisco hospital having been rescued by an American ship that had miraculously come across him in the ocean. Though given his subsequent, tortuous existence, he probably wishes it hadn’t.
The name of the story comes from the narrator’s quest for answers, talking to anthropologists and oceanographic experts in order to come up with some explanation for what he has seen. “Once I sought out a celebrated ethnologist, and amused him with peculiar questions regarding the ancient Philistine legend of Dagon, the Fish-God.” But no one believes him and no on has any real answers. The only method he has found to combat the disturbing images that haunt his memory is morphine, “but the drug has given only transient surcease, and has drawn me into its clutches as a hopeless slave.” He has, over the years, considered that what he experienced might have been only a delusion brought on by the lack of food and water, but in the end the distinction is meaningless. But whether real or fictional, the frightful horror of emotions they continuously dredge up are as real for him as the morphine addiction he suffers from, and it is only at this point that Lovecraft goes into slightly more detail about the true nature of the creature he witnessed. The ending is pure Lovecraft--admittedly via Poe--and wonderfully so.
Lovecraft does seem to indulge in some shorthand that he would forego in the future, making references to the drawings by Dore, grotesqueries “beyond the imagination of a Poe or a Bulwer,” and calling the monster “Polyphemus-like” in lieu of actual description. The idea of degeneracy being equated with the sea is also a theme that Lovecraft would return to again and again, most famously in "The Shadow over Innsmouth," as well as "The Dunwich Horror," which has an ending similar to this one. Lovecraft shared the story much later with fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith, who then passed it on to poet George Sterling. Sterling liked the story but made the ludicrous suggestion that he change the ending and have the monolith fall and crush the monster, causing more of them to rise from the slime. Fortunately, Lovecraft did not take the suggestion seriously and wrote back to Smith that it was “a piece of advice which makes me feel that poets should stick to their sonneteering.” The story was later reprinted in Weird Tales in 1923. Of course Lovecraft was fully aware of the story’s weaknesses, especially the quality of the prose itself, and had he written the story later in his career it no doubt would have been much longer and more detailed. But despite all of its perceived flaws, "Dagon" remains a powerful story and a delightful glimpse into the kind of world Lovecraft would expand upon and explore further in his Cthulhu mythos.