(This article previously appeared in the Seaside Surrealism issue of Patricide.)
When I think of Seaside Surrealism, Lovecraft, Lamantia, and Lautreamont answer. These writers don’t present a unified theme or idea about the seaside as such, but because of their oceanic actions, they trespass upon it. They have related to the ocean in ways which remain suggestive and interesting to me.
Dagon was historically a Mesopotamian grain god with multiple names, said to have come from the sea or space. He is pictured as a man wearing a fish skin, or as a man with a fish tail. Zoom forward several thousand years and Dagon, in pop culture, has become a demonic sea monster and a name for black metal bands, situated alongside Leviathan or Cthulhu in the popular imagination. Some responsibility must belong to H.P. Lovecraft.
Lovecraft’s short story Dagon presents an aquatic humanoid being discovered in a giant ocean crater, while Stuart Gordon’s film Dagon, based more around The Shadow Over Innsmouth, has him as a sea creature served in a gruesome manner by cultists. The most remarkable thing is that people in the decaying seaside town are making the transformation into humanoid aquatic creatures themselves. Some are able to live both at sea and on land. Many of them, in fact, are children of Dagon via human mothers and are looking forward to returning to the sea. Despite being a monster, Dagon helps them desert the human race and protects them.
In Maldoror by Lautreamont, Maldoror has a relationship with the waves. He embraces and makes love with a shark at sea, turns into an octopus, and salutes the Ancient Ocean. He wants to be buried at sea. He compares its immense depths to the depths of the human heart, yet concludes that the heart is deeper. He asks if the ocean is Satan’s abode. Despite his appreciation for the ocean’s expansive, unruly violence which terrifies humanity, towards the end of his rapture he reveals he cannot give all his love to the ocean which forces him to live among humanity, ‘the most buffoonish antithesis ever seen in creation.’ Maldoror is humbled by the power of the sea which he admits to visiting thousands of times.
Philip Lamantia, in his poem Voice of Earth Mediums, invokes the ocean’s waves as a weapon against rampant industrialism and a complacent civilization:
“If the complete crowd-manacled machine isn’t dissolved, back into the earth from where its elements were stolen, we shall call on The Great Ocean Wave, Neter of waters, and the King of Atlantis and his snake spirits, otherwise known as Orcus, Dagon, and Drack, to send up calamitous tidal waves-- a thousand feet high if need be—to bury all the monster metal cities and their billion, bullioned wheels of chemical death.”
Lamantia has claimed the Flood myth to speak in the language of apocalypse, from a passionate motivation to purge himself of disgust at modern civilization. The ocean will inundate the seaside while those who called upon Atlantis are sheltered from the deluge.
In summary, Lamantia suggests a fantastic occult relation with the ocean, Maldoror can cross over between sea and land but cannot stay at sea, and the Dagon cult has integrated the ocean and land. I will look at them for a moment.
Dagon’s children gradually become something other from within the shell of their apparent humanity. Their physical changes suggest our desires to escape the limits of the human form, to really live with the imagination. They are dangerous gifts, methodical madness, and species treason. The blasphemy that the Dagon cultists embody is the literal ‘creepy’ advance down a road where humans fear to tread—into interspecies becoming. The basic expressions of fish or frogs unsettle us when transferred to humans. Of course human-animal hybrids are familiar to the creative person, dreamer, shaman and child, and appear in world myth. The film’s community in the remote seaside town pursued with dedication a real-time mutation or permanent shapeshifting. I find complicity with the idea of mutation pursued for love or pleasure, but not all the features of horror cinema necessarily.
Despite living under cover in the human world, and being under the sway of the authoritarian priests who encouraged herd-like cruelty, the children of Dagon found an innocent freedom at sea while learning how to use their new bodies. How strange the weight of land gravity must be for those who live in the ocean part-time.
When I head to Seaside, Oregon, just west of me, and dive into the ocean, I want to have my gills ready. I’m growing them beneath my clothes so no one will know.
1: Maldoror and the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautreamont, p.41. Translated by Alexis Lykiard. Exact Change, 1994.
2: Bed of Sphinxes: New and Selected Poems 1943-1993, by Philip Lamantia. City Lights, 1997.