As I’ve noted previously, H.P. Lovecraft had a voluminous library of weird fiction, and basically defined himself as the foremost expert on such tales in his time with his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature. Hippocampus Press, in collaboration with Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi, have been reprinting select novels that Lovecraft owned and thought highly of. Up until now, I’ve read A. Merritt’s The Metal Monster, which is now one of my favorite weird tales of all time, and M.P Shiel’s The House of Sounds and Others, which has its own moments of weird awesomeness. With those pleasant experiences in mind, I turned to Herbert S. Gorman’s The Place Called Dagon (1927):
The name “Dagon” will jump out at any fan of Lovecraft immediately. In fact, The Place Called Dagon clearly influenced a number of Lovecraft’s stories, as I mention below.
What did I think of it? Though I found the first third of the novel rather slow, it picked up quickly after that and I found it immensely enjoyable!
The novel introduces us to the physician Daniel Dreeme, who has been living and practicing in the secluded Massachusetts farming town of Marlborough for two years. He has learned to ignore the seclusive and somewhat standoffish nature of the locals, but he is unable to ignore the oddness of the community when he is summoned late one night to treat Jeffrey Westcott for a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Westcott is ostensibly a farmer, but possesses a library filled with ancient and sinister books and cryptically refers to his wound as an “experiment”. Westcott himself is an imposing man with a curiously cloven-shaped skull. He is well-traveled, and quite sardonic.
Dr. Dreeme finds himself haunted by his short meeting with Jeffrey Westcott, and unable to forget his beautiful, dark-haired wife Martha. Dreeme begins to dig into the history of the town and its residents, and begins to hear whispers of dark secrets in their past. He hears that Westcott is “fashioning a god in his own image.” He learns that there is a hidden location, “the place called Dagon,” which lies at the center of the mystery. When Westcott’s servant is found brutally murdered one morning, it becomes clear that events are building which could threaten the life of not only Dreeme, but the life of a truly innocent woman.
Any reader of Lovecraft will almost immediately recognize the ideas which The Place Called Dagon inspired (as well as the name). Gorman’s sinister descriptions of the insular town of Marlborough and its somewhat degenerate residents are quite effective, and a clear inspiration for Lovecraft’s fictional locale Innsmouth in The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1931). Lovecraft’s Captain Obed, the sailor who brought something inhuman back to the port town, has a clear predecessor in Gorman’s Captain Uriah Carrier, whose “black book” brings corruption to Marlborough.
The character of Jeffrey Westcott is also quite fascinating: I really love the “fashioning a god…” quote mentioned above! Westcott, a deformed farmer seeking out forbidden texts and dabbling in ancient religions, is a clear inspiration for Wilbert Whateley in Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror (1928).
S.T. Joshi suggests in the Hippocampus edition that The Place Called Dagon also influenced Dreams in the Witch House (1932), though I personally don’t see a direct connection.
One thing present in Gorman’s novel which never appears in Lovecraft’s work: romance and overt sexuality! Westcott’s wife Martha provides an early love — or should I say lust? — interest for Dreeme. Martha is a strong-willed woman whose interests do not necessarily coincide with either Dreeme or Westcott, and makes for an interesting “X-factor” for the story.
The climax of the novel, though perhaps a little uninspired, is satisfying: I particularly like that one of the characters takes an unexpectedly strong role in the events which take place.
What did Lovecraft think of the novel? I won’t quote his full statement from Supernatural Horror in Literature, which contains spoilers, but Lovecraft referred to it as a “less subtle and well-balanced but nevertheless highly effective creation.” As usual, I would have to agree with Lovecraft. ‘Dagon is a very enjoyable horror novel and one any fan of horror would find worth purusing.
There isn’t much available online about Herbert S. Gorman (1893-1954) himself. He was born in Massachusetts, which doubtless inspired the location for ‘Dagon. He worked as a reporter and editor on several New York newspapers, and wrote some twenty books. Alas, ‘Dagon represents the only weird fiction that Gorman wrote; his other books were biographies and historical novels. It’s a shame, because he had a real talent for weirdness!