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Friday, 2 August 2019

Friday Fiction: H.P. Lovecraft’s Dagon for beginning readers

Much like the earlier H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu for beginning readers, the cartoon cartoon artwork and simple prose of H.P. Lovecraft's Dagon for Beginning Readers would suggest that it is a book for children. Unlike the various Call of Cthulhu ABC books to the delightful Where’s My Shoggoth? which have successfully melded the Cosmic Horror of Lovecraft’s fiction with the children’s author of your choice in a format which can be enjoyed by children, H.P. Lovecraft's Dagon for Beginning Readers uses the form of the children’s book to retell a tale of cosmic horror whose conclusion might be a legitimate response to the cosmic horror at its heart, it is a conclusion that is highly unsuitable for younger readers.

Published by Chaosium, Inc., what H.P. Lovecraft's Dagon for Beginning Readers does is bring both the prose style and the art style of Theodor Seuss Geisel—or Dr. Seuss—to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, or rather to one of Lovecraft’s earliest stories, ‘Dagon’. This is written as the last testament of an ex-sailor driven to drugs by a strange encounter in the Pacific during his service in the Great War. When his ship is captured by an Imperial German sea-raider, he escapes in a lifeboat, but with little idea of where he is, he drifts aimlessly until he suddenly awakes to find himself on land again, but not land he has ever seen. It is a mire of black mud, lifeless and undulating, reeking from the stench of decaying fish, perhaps thrown up from the sea floor. Searching for a way to the sea, he makes his way to the only landmark of note, a hill, beyond which he finds a chasm. Inside he discovers a monolith crudely carved with creatures of the sea and depiction of fish-like men, but then he is disturbed by a fish thing of great size and hideousness.  Fleeing to the surface and a great storm, the narrator next awakens in a San Francisco hospital, but when tells his tale, no believes him and no expert can corroborate his experiences. As time on the strange island haunts his nightmares, his fears grows that the fish thing and others will come for him and mankind, and as scratches are heard at his door, he is driven to suicide.

As with H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu for beginning readers, author and artist R.J. Ivankovic presents H.P. Lovecraft's Dagon for Beginning Readers in the anapestic tetrameter rhyming cadence and art style of Dr. Seus. Yet where the combination of styles leavened Lovecraft’s sometimes heavy style and effectively portrayed the horror of story in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu for beginning readers, in H.P. Lovecraft's Dagon for Beginning Readers is not quite as effective. The text is sparse, but often feels forced, verses interspersed between great swathes of blue and black, that only serve to give the book an incredibly bleak look and feel. That may well fit the source, but it does not make for as riveting a story as in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu for beginning readers. Then there is the ending, which renders H.P. Lovecraft's Dagon for Beginning Readers unsuitable for any but a mature audience, and certainly not for ‘beginning readers’.

Ultimately, the issue with H.P. Lovecraft's Dagon for Beginning Readers is the source story. It begins well enough, the encounter with the Imperial German Navy commerce raider being given a nicely done piratical touch, but once it descends on the desolate mire of the strange island, there is little that R.J. Ivankovic’s art can do to lift the bleakness of the story and there is little that he can do with the text either, which feels leaden despite being in anapestic tetrameter. It does not help that the sparseness of the text—as much as it enforces the bleakness of both story and art—actually breaks up the story.

Nevertheless, the artwork in H.P. Lovecraft's Dagon for Beginning Readers is excellent, inspired by and perfectly aping the style of Dr. Seus. Although cartoon-like, this art never shies away from portraying the horror described in the text. Yet the  bleakness of both story and art, the terrible nature of the end, do make that horror explicit and overbearing, and so H.P. Lovecraft's Dagon for Beginning Readers is not suitable for any but mature readers—as Chaosium makes clear—and it is all just a little blue. There is no doubt that the format really works, as seen in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu for beginning readers, so hopefully the author will select a better story for the next story in the series.

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