Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Appropriations of History, Gothicism, and Cthulhu: Fred Chappell's Dagon

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Appropriations of History, Gothicism, and Cthulhu: Fred Chappell's Dagon

Article excerpt

This essay considers Dagon's preliminary sources, the relationship between its gender-conscious construction of character and its gothic qualities, its innovative appropriation of a fictional historical source, its unique portrayal of American materialism, and its distinctive rendering of gothic and fantastic genre paradigms.

The Nile flows north [ ... ] to Wisconsin Where August Derleth prints the books Of Lovecraft, dreamer of The Book of Thoth, The Necronomicon, lost work of Abdul Alhazred, Lovecraft who wrote of Nug and Dagon, Old gods, Nyogtha and Cthulhu, And east of this train, south of Virginia, In western North Carolina, Fred Chappell Has written a novel, Dagon.--R.H.W. Dillard, News of the Nile

At first glance, Fred Chappell's third book, Dagon (pronounced dagon, possesses a number of striking similarities with his first two novels, It is Time, Lord and The Inkling. Once again, the reader is confronted with a rural area of the American South, an unhappy inward-looking male protagonist, an element of domestic unrest, and symbolic acts of violence. However, these seemingly significant commonalities ultimately melt away as the reader sinks progressively deeper into Dagon's suffocatingly unique and even bizarre combination of history, horror, and wide-ranging intertextuality. With its myriad sources, multiple levels of meaning, and an aesthetic technique utilizing various conventions of gothicism, horror, and southern grotesque, Dagon--a winner of the Best Foreign Novel award from the French Academy--constitutes Chappell's most versatile novel, as well as his most ambitiously experimental.

Dagon is singular in a number of disparately important respects, and this essay begins with an account of its composition--an anguished three-year process that stands out against the succinct development of his first two books, each written in less than two months. Using Dagon's composition as a visceral foundation, the argument moves into a discussion of the book's preliminary sources, those texts that fueled its initial conception. Dagon's models also inform some of the book's specific internal dynamics, and the essay proceeds to consider the relationship between its gender-conscious construction of character and its Gothic qualities, demonstrating how each informs the other. Working both behind and with this dynamic is the book's innovative appropriation of a fictional historical source: the constructed mythology of H.P. Lovecraft. Chappell couples Lovecraft's work with genuine historical sources in delivering serious commentary on debilitating American materialism. The argument concludes with a demonstration of how the book's amalgamating and transcendent resolution reiterates its Gothic and fantastic qualities, while also pressing the boundaries of the genres from which it appropriates material.

More than thirty years after Dagon's publication, Chappell appeared uneasy and slightly reluctant when asked about his third book, the composition of which he paints in unpleasant terms: "I recall sweating out that novel over here on Spring Garden Street and having great agonies with it" (personal interview). In an autobiographical essay he elaborates: "Dagon, my third novel and the shortest of my books of fiction, gave me trouble from which I never quite recovered. Though I was willing to harrow readers with my books, I never expected one of my books to harrow me" ("Fred" 21). In addition to its psychologically trying subject matter, Dagon harried Chappell in terms of its largely irreconcilable themes and labyrinthine concepts, upon which he spent massive amounts of time and energy trying to resolve. He recalls, "Well, I put a lot into it. I put a lot of horrible feelings--all my fears and doubts and pride--into that novel. And I tried real hard. Of the novels I've written, I had the most ambition for that one. It was a difficult failure . . . but then I was trying for difficult things" (Stirnemann 45). …

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