Sean O'Hara's Reviews > The Place Called Dagon

The Place Called Dagon by Herbert Gorman
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's review
Jun 06, 2010

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bookshelves: horror, supernatural
Read in July, 2007

** spoiler alert ** H.P. Lovecraft's long essay "Supernatural Horror in Fiction" is a veritable treasure map for fans of 19th and early 20th Century tales of the macabre -- just about every author of significance, at least in English and French, with a few Germans tossed in, receives a cursory assessment from Lovecraft. As such, the essay makes a superb reading list for those interested in classic horror stories. There's just one problem -- many of the works are obscure and long out of print, leaving weird tale fans to hunt through used book stores and search through anthologies for stories that received just a single, intriguing sentence from Lovecraft. One such book is Herbert Gorman's A Place Called Dagon, which Lovecraft described as the story of an isolated, New England village populated by the descendents of escaped Salem witches. As S.T. Joshi comments in the afterword of the recent Hippocampus Press edition of the novel, "I am sure I am not the only person to have been intrigued when, many years ago, I first read H.P. Lovecrafts comments in Supernatural Horror in Fiction" about" it. No, indeed. With the title recalling Lovecraft's own story, "Dagon" and the plotline that seems straight out of several later tales, such as "The Dreams in the Witch House" and "The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward," no Lovecraft aficionado could resist seeking out the book.

But does the book live up to the expectations? Sadly, no. There is some Lovecraftian talk of Old Gods, but in the main the story is pure gothic, filled with familiar tropes -- the handsome young hero who is tempted by a femme fatale -- indeed, femme diabolique -- while his lady love (whom he's known less than two days) is held by an evil warlock who threatens to ravish her and sacrifice her to the devil (not necessarily in that order, of course). Anyone familiar with gothic fiction can easily point to a dozen similar plotlines, from the novels of Radcliff and "Monk" Lewis, all the way to the films of Bava and Corman, with a heavy dash of Nathaniel Hawthorne thrown in. Indeed, one can easily imagine how an American International Pictures version would be cast -- Boris Karloff, having difficulty moving about in his old age, would naturally get the part of the elderly Dr. Lathrop, while Vincent Price would, of course, play the evil Jeffrey Westcott, with Barbara Steel as his philosophically vampy wife. The hero and heroine, as per usual, wouldn't need to be played by anyone special -- probably Mark Damon as young Dr. Dreeme, and a beach-blanket bimbo from the AIP stable for the docile love-interest, who, after all, just needs to look hot but virginal while being menaced.

Yes, the novel is extremely formulaic and derivative, including one chapter where Gorman seems to've rewritten "Young Goodman Brown," changing just enough to fit it into his plot.

Then there's the insane repetition of the title in the last thirty pages.

"What is the place called Dagon?"

"The place called Dagon is where they perform their satanic rituals."

"Where is the place called Dagon?"

"The place called Dagon is in the swamp."

"Let us go to the place called Dagon."

"We shall go to the place called Dagon."

And they went to the place called Dagon. Then they reached the place called Dagon. And the satanists were at the place called Dagon, performing their satanic ceremonies in the place called Dagon.

Worse yet, the hero, Dr. Dreeme, is completely ineffectual -- and not like Indiana Jones, who, though Hitler could never've controlled the Ark, at least killed a bunch of Nazis on the way. No, Dreeme doesn't accomplish anything except winning the affections of the ridiculously insipid heroine. When the climax comes, his neighbor, who's had about five lines in the entire book, shows up with a gun and takes care of business all by himself, with Dreeme left to just drag his love from the satanic sacrifice. And once he carries her five feet, the neighbor takes her and carries her the rest of the way to safety.

The book does have some nice mood setting, but that's the best I can say of it -- and really, Lovecraft and King have done better at invoking the spookiness of New England woods. Sometimes, I suppose, these books sink into obscurity for a reason.

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