Review: The Place Called Dagon By Herbert Gorman

By Randy Schaub

It is rare that a novel resurrected from the past retains its impact and ability to entertain without seeming dated or quaint. Herbert Gorman’s The Place Called Dagon, written nearly eighty years ago, has been given new shoes to run in by Hippocampus Press, and the book succeeds wonderfully. Gorman’s story takes place in a New England similar to that of today: a dank quagmire of corruption, violent history, and evil secrets. Our hero is Dr. Daniel Dreeme: a classic gentleman, physician, and skeptic. Dreeme is called out to a nearby farm -- the property of sinister bookworm and possible madman Jeffrey Westcott -- to treat a self-inflicted gunshot wound on the farmer’s leg. Wescott mumbles about summoning old gods at "the place called Dagon," and he intrigues and disgusts Dreeme simultaneously. The doctor finds himself compelled to snoop around, gathering secrets on the farm and its owner’s history, in an attempt to find the source of the unnamable malignance that infects the place. He learns soon enough, of course, that this palpable evil is a blight upon the entire community of Marlborough, and not merely confined to Westcott’s land. Here, one of the story’s characters -- Dr. Lathrop -- sets the mood by describing the townsfolk:

“You have seen New Englanders all your life,” the older doctor had said, “and you know their usual characteristics, reticence tinged with curiosity, religious fervor jaundiced with personal hypocrisy, an old pride bolstered by a stony soil, a nasal twang possibly induced by generations of psalm-singing through the nose, a stubborn zeal in labor and an inborn stinginess.”

That’s right -- an entire village of Republicans. Still, Gorman’s clever use of descriptive ramblings like these help build the mood of the story into a mighty fortress of bleak foreboding. As Dreeme slides deeper into Malborough’s mysteries, Gorman ably keeps the story afloat and moving swiftly. We are thrown into a classic suspense tale, with just enough of a hint of the supernatural to keep up our fear of the unknown. Westcott’s creeping insanity and megalomania are expounded upon by his ghostly wife, Martha:

“He directs destinies,” she went on. “He lets nothing stand between him and the objectives he has planned for himself. Not even me. Least of all, me. He has great power over the minds and futures of people when he chooses to exercise it. It is impossible to be independent with him. Once inside the walls of his house there is no individuality left to the visitor -- or rather the intruder, for no one enters his house except intruders…”

These meaty, over the top soliloquies pepper the entire novel, and a grand, old-fashioned piece of weird fiction is forged before our eyes. The list of spooky characters grows: We are introduced to Burroughs, the mysterious preacher; Walden Slater, a laconic farmer whose nosy wife does housekeeping for Dr. Dreeme; and Deborah, the Slaters’ virtuous niece who captivates Dreeme with her beauty and charm. The characters dodge each others’ questions, peer suspiciously across the breakfast table at one another, and generally force the reader to glance over his own shoulder.

Gorman’s fun narration has an aged, Phantom of the Opera-like quality to it. Gorman was chiefly a historical novelist (and, notably, a James Joyce biographer), The Place Called Dagon is the author’s only foray into what we now shelve as Horror -- but it’s a gem. Part of an experimental series of Hippocampus releases collectively known as "Lovecraft’s Library," The Place Called Dagon (like all the books in the series) is believed to have been an influence on the work of infamous pulp master H. P. Lovecraft. Anyone who has read Lovecraft’s story "The Dunwich Horror" will see the same atmosphere present in Gorman’s book, which predates Dunwich by a couple of years. This sort of rare treat -- a long forgotten piece of literary archaeology -- is normally reserved for collectors or obsessed fans. Hippocampus, however, wants these books to be read. The Place Called Dagon is a simple, affordable trade paperback, with informative biographical information by Larry Creasy and weird fiction historian S. T. Joshi. Another interesting touch -- the book is sprinkled by a few original illustrations by Allen Koszowski, which lend a magazine-serial feel to the proceedings and enhance the feeling of discovery.

Dagon by far outstrips the vampire themed detritus that now adorn our bestseller shelves and supermarket racks. It is an antique, really, whose literary value has increased with age, and whose entertainment value has remained intact. It’s like finding one of your parents’ old records -- one of the good ones, at least. Gorman’s skill as an author helps the story transcend the pseudo-screenplay style that popular horror fiction has sunk into, and The Place Called Dagon has been brought back to life just in time for a chilly winter’s read.