World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Dagon”

“Dagon”, H. P. Lovecraft, 1923.

The publication date of this story is 1923, but it was actually written in the summer of 1917.

Its World War One content is pretty minimal and mostly is there to set up the story of a man, adrift in the Pacific, coming across the survival of a horrible alien race on a newly upraised island. He eventually makes his way back to San Francisco to become a morphine addict to forget what he has seen. At story’s end, he kills himself after seeing (or hallucinating, depending on your reading) that one of the horrible creatures he saw has followed him back to civilization.

The story is set in the early days of the war:

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 legitimate prize, whilst we of her crew were treated with all the fairness and consideration due us as naval prisoners.

I read this story out of Leslie S. Klinger’s The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft. One of his annotations implies the above places the story before either October 20, 1914’s sinking of the SS Glitra, a merchant vessel or February 4, 1915 when Kaiser Wilhelm permitted merchant vessels to be sunk by German U-boats in the area around England and Ireland. There are other possible dates for Germany sinking to its “later degradation”: February 18, 1915’s announcement by Germany that it would attack vessels of nations trading with Britain or May 7, 1915’s sinking of the Lusitania.

The German sea-raider Wolf operated in the Pacific as late as August 1917, so Lovecraft’s background history is plausible.

But the most interesting aspect of World War One’s treatment is that, like Edgar Rice Burroughs in Beyond ThirtyLovecraft portrays the war as weakening human civilization to the point where something else may kill it:

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.

Writing in 1917, the creatures on Lovecraft’s island are not metaphors for the coming scourges of fascism or communism or the Spanish flu. Lovecraft’s creatures may be metaphors but not for those post-war horrors.

Of course, Burroughs’ horrors were unlikely but more plausible than Lovecraft’s, but both were responding to contemporary anxieties.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: Yes.
  • On-Stage War: No.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: Yes.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction


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