March 2nd, 2007

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[Tour de Lovecraft] Introduction, Not By S.T. Joshi

Well, I've figured out what I want to do for my multi-entry series for this year: the "Tour de Lovecraft."

Each day, unless I've got something better to post, or I'm away from my keyboard, I'll discuss a Lovecraft story. This will get me marinating in HPL as I write Trail of Cthulhu for Pelgrane, and for each story I'll just pop off something that occurs to me; usually something short, usually something involving Lovecraft. We'll go until we're all sick of it, or until we get to "The Shadow Out of Time," story number 51 in this sequence, which on previous form will be in about two-three months or so.

And because it's no fun if it's not in some kind of order, I'll just be going down the contents page of the three Lovecraft volumes in the Penguin Classics series. (Let me just type that again. "Lovecraft volumes in the Penguin Classics series." Mmmmm. Feel the burn, Edmund Wilson.) We'll go in order, so we start with the first story, "Dagon," in the first volume, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories -- right now.
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[Tour de Lovecraft] Dagon

Like the narrator, Lovecraft saw the central action of "Dagon" -- the crawl across the primordial mud flat away from the temple -- in a dream.

This is an appropriate beginning in so many ways. It's the first piece of mature fiction HPL wrote (and the first he published in Weird Tales), and it introduces a surprisingly developed set of the themes he'd visit for the next 20 years. There's the "archaeological exposition" in the form of hieroglyphics or bas-reliefs, the topos of the submerged evil god/place, the allusions to existing myth but with substantial changes, and even the final despairing narrative shriek to break closure conclusively. It's also the story that forced him to begin his lifelong project of defending, and explaining critically, weird fiction. (Members of the APA where he first circulated the tale disliked it, and its genre, intensely.) As great a writer as HPL is, he's almost as great a critic. (This is surprisingly common.)

This story thus begins both those strands of his thought, and is almost the purest exposition (save the prose-poems) of his thesis that weird fiction is built up from incident, not from action. This, perhaps, is why the narrator is such a passive weakling. Indeed, more than most HPL stories, we really are faced with an unreliable narrator. The sunken continent rises while the narrator dreams wildly, and sinks while he is delirious. In short, he enters and leaves Dagon's realm through his dreams (on a boat, like Max in Where the Wild Things Are). His only proof is nothing: he clearly remembers seeing Dagon at the temple, and he hears noises ... but are you gonna believe a self-confessed suicidal morphine addict? This device keeps this story surprisingly fresh; it's one of Lovecraft's few completely successful (in my mind) variations on Poe's structure. But where Poe was writing psychological horror (admittedly of a very emotional, Romantic bent), HPL was writing existential horror. In "Dagon," you can see it hatch.

NEXT: "The Statement of Randolph Carter"