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Fred Chappell
Boson Books, 130 pages

Fred Chappell
Fred Chappell is the author of thirty volumes of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has twice won World Fantasy Awards, has appeared in over fifty anthologies, and has gathered some dozen or so literary prizes including Poet Laureate of the state of North Carolina. Retired after forty years of university teaching, he lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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A review by Richard A. Lupoff

Nowhere on this new edition of Dagon is there bibliographic data concerning is prior editions, but even a modest research efforts indicates that it was first published by St. Martin's Press in 1968, and has seen at least two later editions, one in 1987 and another in 2002. Readers who were around in 1968 may remember that the book was controversial at the time, and it remains so to this day.

A 1931 reference volume in my possession refers to "Dagon: A god of the Philistines, represented as half-man and half-fish." This sounds like a merman, or like the deity the Greeks called Poseidon and the Romans, Neptune.

Now, here's where things get messy. Good old H.P. Lovecraft wrote a story called "Dagon" in 1917. The story deals with a marooned seaman who encounters a party of debased humans in the Pacific, worshipping a marine monster clearly based on Dagon. Scholars have suggested that this story (and possibly others of Lovecraft's) were inspired by "Fish-Head" a pulp story by Irvin S. Cobb. And so it goes.

Fred Chappell is a highly-honored academic, now retired, and a distinguished regional author. He has had a long connection with the world of fantastic literature, contributing precociously-accomplished short stories to fanzines as early as 1953. It is not surprising, then, that he would turn to Lovecraftian themes in his own works, and Dagon opens with the familiar, chilling Lovecraftian line, Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl ftagn.

Boy, did that ever give me the shudders when I was eleven years old!

Chappell's novel opens with a commonplace scene. A writer, Peter Leland, has settled in a Southern farm house along with his attractive wife, in order to concentrate his efforts on composing a book. At first this seemingly idyllic setting is ideal, but soon things start to sour. They go from bad to worse, and eventually -- please forgive the partial spoiler! -- Leland abandons his happy home and throws in with a little group of rural lowlifes. You know the type. Mammy Yocum, Li'l Abner, Daisy Mae and the rest of their ilk, but without Al Capp's humor or even the limited charm of Dogpatch.

There isn't really much plot to Dagon, and I'm reluctant to give away what little there is. I'll just say this: Leland fits right into the degraded lifestyle of his new chums, and once they introduce him to moonshine whiskey it's one steep, steady slide downward. Every time you think Leland has hit bottom he shows you that he hasn't. Addiction, debasement, degradation, torture, just imagine your worst nightmare and that's Peter Leland's fate.

Have you ever read William Lindsey Gresham's shattering novel of carnival life, Nightmare Alley, or seen the 1947 film based on it? It's a similar story, powerful, depressing, fantastic and yet all too credible. Both the Gresham book and the Chappell are unforgettable. Both are object lessons in how tentative is our grasp on our comfortable, respectable lifestyles, and how easy it would be to slip into the muck.

Chappell comes back to his Lovecraftian touchstone from time to time in this book, and I'm not sure why he does. You'll have to decide for yourself, whether this book is truly part of the Lovecraftian tradition. It is not a pleasant read but it is a compelling one, and I will not suggest that you will enjoy it. But I can guarantee that it will have a powerful impact on you and that you will not forget it for a very long time.

Copyright © 2009 Richard A. Lupoff

Richard A. Lupoff is a novelist, short-story writer, critic, and sometime academic. His most recent books are Visions (currently in production by Mythos Books) and Quintet: The Cases of Chase and Delacroix (Crippen & Landru). He is also the Editorial Director of Surinam Turtle Press, an imprint of Ramble House.

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