Lovecraft’s Nameless Things: Understanding Racial Ecologies in “Dagon”

by | Jul 21, 2022

H. P. Lovecraft is everywhere these days, a multimedia star in death that he never became in life. His influence, perceptible in everything from recent noir (True Detective) to ’80s nostalgia (Stranger Things), speaks to a legacy of monster-making that has shaped the limits of the contemporary fantastical imagination. Yet, alongside these instances of mainstream media, one also finds Lovecraft alive within the white supremacist imagination. This is not surprising; even a cursory scan reveals what China Miéville terms the “murderous race hatred” animating Lovecraft’s writings. “The Horror at Red Hook” describes the titular Brooklyn neighborhood as a multiracial “babel of sound and filth,” leading policemen to “despair of order or reform, and seek rather to erect barriers protecting the outside world from the contagion.” “The Call of Cthulhu” details a conspiratorial, multiracial death cult bent on awakening a betentacled sea monster to destroy the world. His unpublished poem “On the Creation of N—-s ” describes black people as the “missing link” between animals and humans. Gothic scholar Alan Lloyd Smith notes that Lovecraft’s racism “ties into his recurring theme of the early 20th century heralding the downfall of humanity.” So recurrent is this theme in Lovecraft’s work that, as science fiction writer Phenderson Djèlí Clark notes, “If you can’t hear him, you’re just not listening.”

Yvonne Estrada, “LD5-06”

The racialized logics of Lovecraft’s fiction, manifest especially in his ecological imaginary, which focuses on characters embedded within worlds indifferent to their agency. “Dagon,” one of Lovecraft’s earliest stories, follows an unnamed narrator on the verge of committing suicide and haunted by visions of “nameless things” that lurk on the ocean floor and threaten to overthrow human civilization. “[D]amnably human in general outline despite webbed hands and feet, shockingly wide and flabby lips, glassy, bulging eyes, and [having] other features less pleasant to recall,” Lovecraft’s nameless things and their native ecology trouble the boundaries between the human and nonhuman. Depicting alienation and eruptive environments that are hostile to humans activates anxieties about a racial order in flux. In “Dagon,” more-than-human agencies lurking beneath dark waters and sinister islands threaten not merely a human civilization, but a specifically white one. While these alien environments are designed to bewilder the reader encountering them, reading Lovecraft against the grain of his own ideologies means foregrounding the ways in which this alienation is couched in decentering a particular kind of subject. The Alien and the Other in Lovecraft are eternal threats to the sanctity and wholeness of the human — which in Lovecraft is always associated with the trauma of whiteness that believes itself to be under duress.

Dagon and Eruptive Racial Ecologies

Lovecraft’s narrative style is, in a word, overstuffed — marked by linguistic and descriptive excesses that Lovecraft’s contemporaries often found clumsy, juvenile, or simply bad. Writing for The New Yorker in 1945, Edmund Wilson noted that “the only horror” present in Lovecraft’s work was the “horror of bad taste and bad art.” It is not difficult to see where such critiques come from — sentences such as the following are indeed cumbersome: “I know not why my dreams were so wild that night; but ere the waning and fantastically gibbous moon had risen far above the eastern plain, I was awake in a cold perspiration, determined to sleep no more.” Yet it is precisely this sensual excess that makes Lovecraft’s literary experiment so memorable. If his prose appears overstuffed, threatening to burst and fall apart, it is also characteristic of a Gothic tendency to, in Smith’s words, “push toward extremes and excess” in order to explore the limits of material experience. One might say, then, that Lovecraft’s excesses mirror the vastness and depth of his ecologies.

The “weirdness” of a world suddenly made inhospitable to humans is not merely descriptive, but moralizing: for Lovecraft, “weird” was not merely his mode of writing, but a description of a world gone profoundly wrong. In this sense, the feeling of unease permeating Lovecraft’s ecologies is critical to understanding how he imagines the radical decentering of whiteness.

Deeply influenced by 19th-century Gothic writers such as Poe and Hawthorne, Lovecraft nonetheless abandoned “secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule” for a more alienating “atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces,” a mode of writing he dubbed “weird” fiction (“Supernatural Horror”). The general arc of a Lovecraft narrator tends to look like this: initially secure in his enlightened understanding of the world, the narrator finds this security violently ripped away through an encounter with something … strange. This encounter is not “supernatural” per se; rather, these threats are eruptive instantiations of an incomprehensible natural order. The “weirdness” of a world suddenly made inhospitable to humans is not merely descriptive, but moralizing: for Lovecraft, “weird” was not merely his mode of writing, but a description of a world gone profoundly wrong. In this sense, the feeling of unease permeating Lovecraft’s ecologies is critical to understanding how he imagines the radical decentering of whiteness.

In “Dagon,” the terror of racial order in flux can already be seen in the narrator’s initial weakened state. We learn in the first lines of the narrator’s addiction to morphine: something of a Gothic shibboleth, morphine marks the weakening white body. Isolated and locked in a room, the narrator is subject to the invisible machinations of narcotics just as he fears society is subject to the invisible machinations of the “nameless things.” Though a lifelong teetotaler, Lovecraft would have been intimately familiar with the image of the Gothic drug addict constructed, in literary theorist Carol Margaret Davison’s estimation, “in relation to the divided self — an ‘Other’ within the self” that was no longer whole. In “Dagon,” morphine has made the narrator “a hopeless slave,” living in terror of “a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it.” Drugs in Gothic fiction “ultimately assume the role of a demonic, enslaving, isolating, always racialized […] love object” (Davison, emphasis mine). Though Davison is analyzing a particularly British context of 19th-century drug addictieon — opium in the British Gothic is associated directly with the influence of China — the connection between drugs and nonwhite culture, in general, was a well-established Gothic trope by the time Lovecraft wrote “Dagon.” Addiction, then, marks the narrator as under the influence not simply of a powerful narcotic, but of a nonhuman yet paradoxically racialized will which has primacy over the human body. The reader sees early on that the narrator’s mind and personality have been, in some sense, replaced by something entirely racialized, something “alien” and “monstrous.” In other words, by something nonwhite.

The narrator then recounts his experience encountering the “nameless things” he so fears. After escaping captivity aboard a German submarine on the open Pacific, the narrator finds himself on an island that seems to have risen from the ocean while he slept:

When at last I awaked, it was to discover myself half sucked into a slimy expanse of hellish black mire […] there was in the air and in the rotting soil a sinister quality which chilled me to the very core. The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish, and of other less describable things which I saw protruding from the nasty mud of the unending plain.

This “slimy expanse” mirrors the excessive prose that saturates the text. The narrator’s “nauseating fear,” occasioned by the “homogeneity of the landscape,” is transferred to the reader through exhaustive description. The island is so apparently terrifying in its hostility that even the narrator cannot fully account for it; having described the rotting soil and the carcasses of the decaying fish, he is left to remark upon “less describable things” only briefly in the landscape which haunts him. The text here threatens to collapse the distinction between the fictional environment and the reader’s reality.

Pushing even deeper into the newly risen island, the narrator finds an ancient obelisk covered in strange symbols: “I think that these were supposed to depict men — at least, a certain sort of men; though the creatures were shewn disporting like fishes in the waters of some marine grotto, or paying homage at some monolithic shrine which appeared to be under the waves as well.” These figures are the “nameless things,” beings representing an ancient civilization utterly alien to the narrator’s experience and understanding. They belong to a bygone age, a deep geological time that the narrator cannot access and that escapes the accounting of enlightened rationality.

Lovecraft’s fear of a racialized ecology lies not solely in the nonhuman beings it produces, but in the possibility that this dyad of creature and ecology is waiting to overthrow the white world.

The obelisk’s frozen time, however, is shattered by the emergence of a living “nameless thing,” an eruptive form that confirms this alien civilization is not limited to the long-ago geologic deep time but is, in fact, an always-already present threat:

With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.

The narrator feels in this moment the infinitesimal distance between himself and the unseen agencies that the island hints at and which are given explosive, visible form in the figure of the “nameless things.” The veil of reality has lifted and the narrator now knows that humans — white humans, in particular — are not the masters of the world.

Lovecraft’s Racial Mythos

Horrifying as the island is, what finally drives the narrator to suicide is a realization he has after escaping. Wondering whether it all could have been a dream — perhaps a “mere freak of fever as [he] lay sun-stricken and raving in the open boat” — he ultimately finds it impossible to dismiss what he has seen. The experience left such an imprint on him that he is haunted by dreams of a terrifying inversion of the world: “I dream of a day when [the nameless things] 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.” Lovecraft’s fear of a racialized ecology lies not solely in the nonhuman beings it produces, but in the possibility that this dyad of creature and ecology is waiting to overthrow the white world. In “Dagon,” the nonhuman seethes, roils, pushes out, and ultimately replaces.

Such imagined movement has consequences far-reaching beyond the fictive. In our moment of renewed white supremacist terrorism, for instance, we might recognize a sort of proto-replacement narrative, a feverish fantasy that justifies extreme violence in defense of a white social order thought to be under threat. The “great replacement” is a conspiracy theory that holds global “elites” (typically coded as Jewish) are systematically displacing and disenfranchising white people through immigration and slowly decreasing birth rates among white Americans, often achieved through forced sterilization and legal abortion. Though born in the fringe corners of the internet, replacement theory is now mainstream political discourse. Republican politicians like Elise Stefanik can claim on a Facebook ad that, by granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants, Democrats would “overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington” with essentially no political pushback (Confessore and Yourish). Before killing 10 people (all of whom were Black) and wounding three, the Buffalo shooter ranted in a 180-page screed about people who “invade our lands, live on our soil, live on government support and attack and replace our people.”

The inverted racial world and the fear of replacement that Stefanik and white supremacist terrorists imagine necessitates the construction of the racial other as monstrous entities that need to be destroyed. Undocumented immigrants, Latinos, and Black Americans become sinister invaders recruited by an anti-white conspiracy to destroy white civilization. For replacement theorists, the end of the world is an already emergent crisis; like Lovecraft’s morphine-addled narrator, they live in terror of the sound at the door, the “taint” of the nonwhite world having weakened them. If Lovecraft “has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale,” as Stephen King would have it, it is precisely because he helped construct the anxious white mythos regarding race. We live now, tragically, in its apotheosis.

Randolph Marcum

Randolph Marcum

Randolph Marcum is a PhD. candidate in Literature and Cultural Theory at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His current research interests include science fiction, media studies, and affect theory. His dissertation is focused on the question of how anticipation became a dominant American cultural feeling in the late 20th century. Beyond this, Randolph works at his university’s writing center as a peer tutor, as well as at UWM’s Center for 21st Century Studies as a graduate fellow.