Writing

Lessons From the Vivid Writing of Lovecraft’s Dagon

Engraving of an Assyrian Cylinder, with Dagon, or the Fish-god

Somehow I doubt this is the Dagon Lovecraft had in mind.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft is a major influence on the cosmic horror genre, to the point that it’s often called Lovecraftian horror. The man had many flaws, including racism and anti-semitism, but his work remains popular for a reason: he had a way with words.

Dagon is one of Lovecraft’s earliest stories and heavily foreshadows later works like The Shadow of Over Innsmouth and The Call of Cthulhu. Despite being published in 1919, Dagon remains highly read and a source of inspiration to writers everywhere. So what lessons can be learned from studying this venerable short story through a modern eye? Let’s find out.  

Hook the Reader With Immediate Conflict

I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since 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. Do not think from my slavery to morphine that I am a weakling or a degenerate. When you have read these hastily scrawled pages you may guess, though never fully realise, why it is that I must have forgetfulness or death.

This opening paragraph does exactly what it needs to do: hook the reader with immediate conflict. The protagonist is in a bad place and considering suicide. He’s run out of money and the morphine he needs to feed his habit. The narrator doesn’t mince words; he’s at rock bottom and doesn’t see a way out. But then he mentions that there’s more to it. Now the reader is curious. What could have happened to drive a man to such desperation?

Inexperienced writers could learn a lot from this paragraph. Lovecraft doesn’t open with a description of the protagonist’s house or with a speculative rant about the state of the world. The story gets right to work showing why the reader needs to keep going, or else they’ll never find out what’s got the protagonist in such a state.

The first paragraph’s other function serves as a framing device. After this, the narrator jumps back in time to tell us about something that happened in the past before jumping back into the present at the end. One danger with framing devices like this is that they can take away tension because the reader knows the narrator ends up okay, no matter what danger befalls them in the story. Dagon’s frame does the opposite. We know the narrator ends up in a terrible state, and we’re eager to find out why.    

Leave Out Unnecessary Exposition

It was in one of the most open and least frequented parts of the broad Pacific that the packet of which I was supercargo fell a victim to the German sea-raider. The great war was then at its very beginning, and 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. So liberal, indeed, was the discipline of our captors, that five days after we were taken I managed to escape alone in a small boat with water and provisions for a good length of time.

When I finally found myself adrift and free, I had but little idea of my surroundings. Never a competent navigator, I could only guess vaguely by the sun and stars that I was somewhat south of the equator. Of the longitude I knew nothing, and no island or coastline was in sight. The weather kept fair, and for uncounted days I drifted aimlessly beneath the scorching sun; waiting either for some passing ship, or to be cast on the shores of some habitable land. But neither ship nor land appeared, and I began to despair in my solitude upon the heaving vastness of unbroken blue.

Unfortunately, after an opening paragraph devoid of unnecessary information, Dagon’s second paragraph is filled with it. While the history nerd in me applauds any reference to the tragically overlooked naval war in World War One’s Pacific theater, the German warship is completely unnecessary in this story. For one thing, why would the protagonist escape such generous captors to risk the open sea? If he’s experienced enough to hold the position of supercargo, he should know the dangers of drifting in a lifeboat.  

More importantly, the German ship never comes up again in the story, and it doesn’t serve a real purpose here. The important action in the two paragraphs above is the protagonist somehow getting lost in a rowboat, and that doesn’t require all this description of how honorable the German’s were. Worse, by spending a whole paragraph on the Germans, Dagon creates the expectation that they’ll be back later. 

To avoid raising expectations that will never be fulfilled, and to cut unnecessary text, Dagon’s second paragraph should have looked like this:

Example

Deep in the most open and least frequented part of the Pacific, the vessel on which I was passenger fell a victim to an unexpected storm. I managed to escape alone in a small boat with water and provisions for a good length of time.

From there, the story could have continued on to the third paragraph about the protagonist drifting at sea for days.

Be Careful With Indescribable Things

The change happened whilst I slept. Its details I shall never know; for my slumber, though troubled and dream-infested, was continuous. When at last I awakened, it was to discover myself 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.

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 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. Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity. There was nothing within hearing, and nothing in sight save a vast reach of black slime; yet the very completeness of the stillness and the homogeneity of the landscape oppressed me with a nauseating fear.

The sun was blazing down from a sky which seemed to me almost black in its cloudless cruelty; as though reflecting the inky marsh beneath my feet. As I crawled into the stranded boat I realized that only one theory could explain my position. Through some unprecedented volcanic upheaval, a portion of the ocean floor must have been thrown to the surface, exposing regions which for innumerable millions of years had lain hidden under unfathomable watery depths.

This next paragraph contains some of the excellent description Lovecraft is famous for. Who doesn’t love a little slimy expanse of hellish black mire in the morning? Not only is this a provocative description, but it also has good symbolism, too. The mire sucks at the protagonist, pulling him in. This foreshadows that his escape from this strange land won’t be easy.

Plus there’s the overpowering putrescence of rotting fish, gross! Smell is a visceral sense, and it’s great for inspiring the deep dread that cosmic horror thrives on.

Then we get to another staple of Lovecraft’s work: not describing things. The narrator actually calls some of the things wriggling in the muck “less describable.” He then goes on to assure us that he can’t convey in mere words how terrible this place is. Lovecraft does this because in horror, it’s valuable to let the audience imagine awful things for themselves, because whatever their imagination conjures up will be far more frightening than a mere description from the author.

At the same time, Dagon’s methods often come across as a cheap trick. Modern audiences will be highly skeptical of a narrator who claims something can’t be described or that a feeling can’t be conveyed in mere words. Instead, writers looking to keep their work mysterious should create situations where the narrator is in the dark just like the audience. Consider this modification to Dagon’s claim of “less describable” things:

Example

The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish, and of curving, organic shapes that I caught only in fleeting glimpses as they sank beneath the muck. The barren immensity pressed down on me, the emptiness of it raising bile in my throat.

Now we get to keep the mystery of whatever those strange creatures were that sank into the muck, and we bring home an abstract dread of the landscape but without the contrivance of not describing something the narrator can clearly see.

Beware of Over Describing

[The narrator describes the muddy land a little more.]

For several hours I sat thinking or brooding in the boat, which lay upon its side and afforded a slight shade as the sun moved across the heavens. As the day progressed, the ground lost some of its stickiness, and seemed likely to dry sufficiently for travelling purposes in a short time. That night I slept but little, and the next day I made for myself a pack containing food and water, preparatory to an overland journey in search of the vanished sea and possible rescue.

On the third morning I found the soil dry enough to walk upon with ease. The odour of the fish was maddening; but I was too much concerned with graver things to mind so slight an evil, and set out boldly for an unknown goal. All day I forged steadily westward, guided by a far-away hummock which rose higher than any other elevation on the rolling desert. That night I encamped, and on the following day still travelled toward the hummock, though that object seemed scarcely nearer than when I had first espied it. By the fourth evening I attained the base of the mound, which turned out to be much higher than it had appeared from a distance, an intervening valley setting it out in sharper relief from the general surface. Too weary to ascend, I slept in the shadow of the hill.

Here we see another of Lovecraft’s common foibles on display: he does go on. This time he’s spending an entire paragraph on unnecessary description of the protagonist sitting in a boat while the sun beats down overhead and dries the ground so he can walk on it. This could have easily happened more quickly, or the protagonist could have found firmer ground as he explored. Either way would have saved precious page space. We’ve already had several days of the protagonist lying in a boat, too, so that’s not changing anything for him.

The second paragraph is necessary to the story as it describes the protagonist getting off his ass and striking out, but it can still be trimmed. We don’t need a blow-by-blow account of each day he walks, since nothing exciting or especially scary happens during the travel. And side note, why does the narrator say he struck out for an unknown goal when he just said a second earlier that his goal was to reach the sea and possibly be rescued? With a little trimming, the two paragraphs could be combined into something far more efficient. Observe:

Example

As the sun crossed the sky overhead, I made for myself a pack containing food and water, preparatory to an overland journey in search of the vanished sea and possible rescue. The odour of the fish was maddening; but I was too much concerned with graver things to mind so slight an evil, and set out boldly for my goal. Three days I walked, guided by a far-away hummock which rose higher than any other elevation on the rolling desert. By the third evening I attained the hummock’s base, and too weary to ascend, I slept in its shadow.

Don’t Use Fancy Language to Dress Up Mundane Things

[The protagonist has nightmares and decides to climb the hummock since he can’t sleep.]

I have said that the unbroken monotony of the rolling plain was a source of vague horror to me; but I think my horror was greater when I gained the summit of the mound and looked down the other side into an immeasurable pit or canyon, whose black recesses the moon had not yet soared high enough to illumine. I felt myself on the edge of the world, peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of eternal night. Through my terror ran curious reminiscences of Paradise Lost, and Satan’s hideous climb through the unfashioned realms of darkness.

As the moon climbed higher in the sky, I began to see that the slopes of the valley were not quite so perpendicular as I had imagined. Ledges and outcroppings of rock afforded fairly easy footholds for a descent, whilst after a drop of a few hundred feet, the declivity became very gradual. Urged on by an impulse which I cannot definitely analyse, I scrambled with difficulty down the rocks and stood on the gentler slope beneath, gazing into the Stygian deeps where no light had yet penetrated.

In this section, Lovecraft’s most famous weakness is on display. Beneath all the evocative language, the protagonist has discovered a canyon deep enough that he can’t see all the way to the bottom. But it’s night, so that’s not surprising. The canyon isn’t doing anything, it’s not a threat, but Lovecraft describes it with words like “Stygian” and refers to “black recesses.” He’s trying to make a mundane terrain feature seem scary by piling adjectives on it. He might as well try to make a chair scary by describing light reflecting at arcane angles from its Cyclopean armrests.*

An author can get away with this for a while, but eventually the reader will realize that the fear is all smoke and mirrors, that there’s no substance to it. Evocative language is meant to enhance a story’s qualities, not fill in for them. Earlier, Lovecraft was fully justified in using the best adjectives at his disposal to describe the strange landscape, because it had appeared out of nowhere in the middle of open ocean. That’s creepy, and evocative language makes it more so.

If this canyon had been dangerous in some way, even if it was because of the protagonist’s own foolishness, then all the scary description could have worked. Maybe the protagonist stumbled blindly to the edge, only just realizing how close he was to death. Let’s try something like this:

Example

After a scrambling climb I gained the summit, but in the dark of night I stumbled on some spur of rock and tumbled down the declining side. Flesh torn by quartz spines, my fall arrested just before the ground fell away into black recesses the moon had not yet soared high enough to illumine. I felt myself on the edge of the world, peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of eternal night.

Now the canyon is scary because the protagonist almost fell into it, and all the evocative language about its unnatural depth feels like his gut reaction to nearly dying.

Don’t Contaminate Your Description With Confusion or Racism

[The protagonist sees a stone obelisk across the canyon. The obelisk has strange pictorial carvings on it.]

It was the pictorial carving, however, that did most to hold me spellbound.

Plainly visible across the intervening water on account of their enormous size was an array of bas-reliefs whose subjects would have excited the envy of a Dore. I think that these things were supposed to depict 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. Of their faces and forms I dare not speak in detail, for the mere remembrance makes me grow faint. Grotesque beyond the imagination of a Poe or a Bulwer, they 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 chiselled 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. I remarked, as I say, their grotesqueness and strange size; but in a moment decided that they were merely the imaginary gods of some primitive fishing or seafaring tribe; some tribe whose last descendant had perished eras before the first ancestor of the Piltdown or Neanderthal Man was born.

Okay, that’s a monster paragraph that should probably be split into two, but I had to read it as one and now so do all of you. There’s a lot to unpack here, so we’ll start with the positives. We see more of Lovecraft’s excellent description here, with phrases like “human in general outline.” And unlike the canyon before, we have a distinct reason to be scared of these creatures, as the drawings imply that they’re enormous and like to kill whales. That’s certainly enough to make me nervous.

But then the paragraph gets muddled. The narrator says he won’t describe the creatures in detail, but then he does, right down to their glassy eyes. How he can tell they have glassy eyes from a stone carving is another question. The paragraph also makes numerous references to the works of other people. I’m not sure exactly who he’s referencing by comparing the creatures to the work of Dore, Poe, and Bulwer. Even if a reader is willing to look up each of these people in turn, it’s a blow to the story’s pacing.

Finally, there’s that last sentence. For one thing, why call them “imaginary” gods? It’s possible the narrator is meant to be religiously closed-minded, but since this aspect of him is never challenged, I doubt it. Neither do we see any evidence that the narrator is an atheist, as Lovecraft himself supposedly was. If these carvings were of gods, they’d be no more or less imaginary than any modern religion.

Worse is the narrator’s use of “primitive” to describe the people who might have worshiped these carvings. “Primitive” has an inherently negative connotation, and it’s pretty clear from the geographical location, deep in the Pacific, that Lovecraft isn’t talking about a tribe of low tech white people.* This is far from the worst sin Lovecraft committed in terms of racism, but it’s still something that should be avoided. In this case, simply describing the obelisk’s potential creators as “ancient” rather than “primitive” would have done the trick.

Make Your Monster Do Something

Awestruck at this unexpected glimpse into a past beyond the conception of the most daring anthropologist, I stood musing whilst the moon cast queer reflections on the silent channel before me. 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. 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. I think I went mad then.

Of my frantic ascent of the slope and cliff, and of my delirious journey back to the stranded boat, I remember little. I believe I sang a great deal, and laughed oddly when I was unable to sing. I have indistinct recollections of a great storm some time after I reached the boat; at any rate, I knew that I heard peals of thunder and other tones which Nature utters only in her wildest moods.

The monster is finally here! We have another great round of Lovecraftian description.* This monster is grotesque and terrifying. It rises out of the sea and… doesn’t actually do anything. Much like the canyon before, Lovecraft is using evocative imagery to compensate for a lack of actual threat. Only this time it’s even more extreme because just seeing the monster drives the protagonist into some kind of psychosis.

It’s understandable that something so alien looking would scare the protagonist, but not to the extreme shown here. This is why Dagon is sometimes referred to as “the story where a man sees a big fish and goes crazy.” At the very least, the monster should have tried to attack the protagonist, perhaps forcing him to take shelter in a grotto* until the thing got bored and left.

Even better, what if the Germans from earlier had showed up? They’ve also found this strange new land and have sailed their warship up to explore, when this giant fish monster easily destroys them. The narrator can only hide in terror, helpless to do anything as all the power of modern weaponry proves useless against this leviathan from the deep. Not only would such a twist have justified all of Lovecraft’s scary descriptions of the creature, but it would have also justified including the Germans in the first place.

Leave Out Extraneous References

When I came out of the shadows I was in a San Francisco hospital; brought thither by the captain of the American ship which had picked up my boat in mid-ocean. In my delirium I had said much, but found that my words had been given scant attention. Of any land upheaval in the Pacific, my rescuers knew nothing; nor did I deem it necessary to insist upon a thing which I knew they could not believe. 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.

Here we see where the story gets its name, but the reference is a little puzzling. Why is the protagonist asking about Dagon specifically? It’s true that Dagon is a mythological figure sometimes portrayed as having fish-like qualities, but he’s hardly alone in that regard. Nothing the protagonist saw specifically indicated Dagon, nor was the protagonist established as having any beliefs that might lead him to ask about Dagon.* The geography is all wrong too. Dagon is a figure in Mediterranean mythology, while the fish monster was supposedly somewhere in the Pacific.

Bringing up this specific deity without reason raises questions that the story doesn’t have time to answer. It makes the reader wonder if they missed something that would explain the narrator’s sudden fixation on Dagon. Perhaps Lovecraft assumed his audience would be familiar with the biblical reference, though that seems unlikely even in 1919.

The ending is only two paragraphs away, so this isn’t the time to raise questions. The story would have been much better served by the protagonist frantically researching different fish deities, searching in vain for answers that might explain what he saw. That would contribute to his mental unraveling without making the reader wonder where the name Dagon came from. Of course, the story would need a different title, but that’s a small price to pay.

Link Your Ending to the Story’s Conflict

It is at night, especially when the moon is gibbous and waning, that I see the thing. I tried morphine; but the drug has given only transient surcease, and has drawn me into its clutches as a hopeless slave. So now I am to end it all, having written a full account for the information or the contemptuous amusement of my fellow-men. Often I ask myself if it could not all have been a pure phantasm — a mere freak of fever as I lay sun-stricken and raving in the open boat after my escape from the German man-of-war. This I ask myself, but ever does there come before me a hideously vivid vision in reply. 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.

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!

This is good ending, especially that description of an immense and slippery body at the door. It gives me shivers. The story returns to its original framing device, and we see how the protagonist has fallen so far. It’s not just that he’s freaked out after seeing a big fish; it’s that he fears the threat posed to humanity by the creature he saw. He’s paranoid, convinced that agents of the monster are after him somehow while at the same time he still doubts what he saw. It’s all a great recipe to sow fear in the reader, like a good horror story should.

Even so, the ending could be a lot stronger. The protagonist’s existential fear for humanity is multiplied if you know this story takes place in the shadow of World War One, when all of Europe’s great powers exhausted themselves trying to kill each other. Someone looking at casualty reports from the Western Front could easily conclude humanity was ripe for conquest by some outside force. The problem is that WWI isn’t really present in the story, outside the brief appearance of the German ship at the beginning, which as written is completely vestigial.

If the fish monster had done something to show it was a threat to humanity, such as destroying the German ship, then the protagonist’s fears would be far better justified. As it is, once you get past the evocative language, you realize he’s freaking out about a species that’s apparently been content to sit and worship at the bottom of the ocean for countless centuries. That’s hardly a threat to human survival.

The Story Overall

Dagon is a scary story, no question about it. One of Lovecraft’s earliest publications, it showcases the evocative description he’d become known for. At the same time, it isn’t very deep.* Most of the conflict and tension in the story is completely inferred by the protagonist. An objective observer would rightly conclude that the protagonist was in far more danger while lost at sea than in the presence of a fish monster that by all accounts just wanted to worship its stone obelisk in peace.

Compare this to one of Lovecraft’s later stories, The Colour Out of Space. That work also consists mostly of a narrator describing events that happened in the past, often events he didn’t personally witness, and yet The Colour feels far more immediate than Dagon. That’s because in The Colour, people are actually in danger. Lovecraft’s prose builds on the conflict in his plot, rather than trying to make up for a plot that lacks any conflict at all.

If there’s one lesson to take away from Dagon, it’s that fancy wordcraft can’t hold up a story all on its own. Dagon is still a fun read, but it lacks the staying power of a truly great story.

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