Monday, May 23, 2011

Dagon by Fred Chappell (1968): This Very Night, Evermore

Here's a short novel from the kind of author one doesn't normally associate with the Cthulhu Mythos: a former North Carolina Poet Laureate and English professor named Fred Chappell. In Dagon, his third novel (first paperback edition 1987 from St. Martin's Press), he culls both the Southern gothic tradition and Lovecraftian tropes to produce a weird, unclassifiable whole. Written in that writerly style that prides itself on paragraphs that go on for two pages while describing in poetic prose the fetid decay of the region that seeps into the psyches of its characters, Dagon isn't just a horror novel: "My purpose in Dagon was not simply to scare people or thrill them," Chappell says in Understanding Fred Chappell. "You can do that by making a loud noise. I wanted to disturb them in a different way... the horror story is only the surface. There's a great deal of literary intention below that."

Contemporary Southern fiction has never done much for me; I find much of it too self-conscious and overwrought, often dripping in a prose so purple that pulp writers would blush. However, its concern for family lineage, the almost mystical power the very land itself has on its inhabitants, its religious strangeness and hypocritical perversity is not so far removed from Lovecraft's own fiction. I've no idea why Chappell was drawn to the Cthulhu Mythos for this novel, but both August Derleth and Karl Edward Wagner heaped praise upon it. Mostly it's a grim journey through psychological degradation and the loss of individual will, filled out with Southern-fiction staples like murder, adultery, strange religious rites, weird locals, backwoods degeneracy, creepy fish-faced women... Hey, wait a minute!

2002 edition from Louisiana State University Press

Peter Leland is a young preacher who inherits his grandparents' farmhouse in the North Carolina mountains. He comes to live there with his wife Sheila so he can work on his book about Puritanism and paganism in America (Dagon here is not Lovecraft's Dagon but the fertility god referenced in the Old Testament... or is it?). The opening chapter, a densely-written section as Leland explores his new home, had what I took to be some slight foreshadowing: In the left door his image stood, hands still over his face, and he was all cut into pieces in the panes... Which you can also see on the cover of the original 1968 hardcover here.

But Leland, while pondering dark and guilt-stricken theological notions for his book, becomes erotically obsessed with a neighbor's ugly yet mysteriously alluring daughter, Mina: She had no nose, Mina, any more than a fish. She deeped in oceans of semen. Events then take a turn for the absolute worst - Chappell strains credibility here - and soon Leland is away with Mina and on the road in an old car through the South's tangled backwoods. Along for the ride is teenage hillbilly-punk Coke Rymer (those Southern names!), who challenges Leland every chance he gets; Leland's response is to drink more of Mina's lethal moonshine. Ultimately Leland wants to give up all his earthly powers of autonomy, allows himself to be monstrously tattooed, thus encouraging Mina to take him to a finality from which he can never return.

Here, was this an inky bird struggling into shape? Really, were these great fish? Or bared unjoined tendons? Was this a clot of spiny seaweed?... A worm?... the design, if it could be called a design, appeared on him like a great lurid continent thrusting itself out of the sea.

(The interior cover above well recreates this, if you look close you'll see the head of Dagon casting a shadow as it rises from a young Warren Beatty's perfect pecs. Pretty sure it's the work of Peter Caras).

Interestingly, Chappell's novel has two endings, and I've read that he was unsure which to use: the penultimate chapter is the horrific one, while the true end of the book is a bizarre moment of, yes, Lovecraftian transcendence. I dug both. So, here, it's the destination that counts, while the journey is just too... not-horror enough for me, unfocused. Fans of Lovecraftian fiction will not find enough Dagon action; lovers of Southern fiction will be confused by references to Cthulhu and "Їa ftagn" and such. That "blinding terror" tagline on the sickly green cover is misleading, although the shackles feature in an effective scene of creepiness and Southern gothicism. Ripe with imagery and smells of rotting earth, dank vegetation, and a debased sensuality, Dagon works in places but left me unsatisfied in others; it's an intriguing and original entry in the Cthulhu Mythos but I'm simply not sure how successful of one.

On an unrelated note: I was recently interviewed by After Dark in the Playing Fields. Care to hear even more of my opinions and deathless insights into vintage horror fiction? No? That's cool. But if you do, why, click here!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review. I've always wanted to read this one, but haven't stumbled across it yet. Nor have I made a concerted effort to actually seek it out, beyond a cursory internet search every now and then. For some reason I thought that it was a newer book. I guess that's what I get for thinking!


Will Errickson said...

I first came across Dagon when it came out in paperback in '87, but never bought it till last week. Fairly fast read, under 200 pages.

Tim Mayer said...

Another one for the book pile.

highwayknees said...

Hmmm, that's a weirdy! I should have run across this at some point in time the way I used to live in old used book stores back then. Or even as a child when it first was released in paper...? But I've never seen nor herd of it EVER! Now -I -Must-Find-It..! Good cover on the PB too!But green's my favorite color so...maybe I'm a sucker. Perect concise length too. I miss those short novels from back then,sigh.
Thanks Will!

~ said...

Just found a mint St. Martins Press edition of this one for a buck in a used bookstore down the street. I've enjoyed some of Fred Chappell's stories in TMoF&SF and hope to find time to read it. Thanks for the review.