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Book Review: Dagon by Fred Chappell (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Green-tinted handcuffs and a keyhole that reveal the face of a lizard.Summary:
Peter doesn’t know much about his father’s side of the family as his mother left him when he was little.  Now, a married pastor, he returns to his father’s parents’ house, a recent inheritance.  Slowly he discovers the cultist history of his family and begins his descent into madness.

Review:
There aren’t that many books in the Lovecraft mythos, so when I spot one, I almost always add it to my wishlist and pick it up if I spot it.  (I’m a big fan of the mythos, and my current work in progress is set in it).  I spotted this one during one of Better World Books’ periodic sales and got it for just a couple of dollars.  The problem with the world of Lovecraftian horror is this.  The mythos is great, but a lot of the books/movies set in it are a swing and a miss.  Which is sad for me as a reader, because I know that this is an author with the same funky interest as me, so I want it to work. I want it to work very much.  It just doesn’t always.  This, unfortunately, falls solidly in the swing and a miss category for me.

The germ of the story is a great idea.  An ostensibly mainstream “good” man following his roots and falling into a dark god worshiping cult. Brilliant.  The execution is weak, however.  The cover of my copy of the book claims that it is a “novel of blinding terror.”  This is just not the case.  In some ways I feel that Chappell just tried too hard.  The entire first chapter is meant to set the scene with extremely heavy-handed gothic language, but it is just painful to read.  The first chapter describes one room of the house.  Excessive energy is spent trying to make even the throw pillows seem malicious.  It is too over-the-top and becomes laughable.  Thankfully, the next chapter abandons the excessive language, but it is still never scary.  It is titillating at a couple of points.  Engaging as well.  But never terrifying.

Part of the problem is that the book fails to build suspense from beginning to end.  It builds up in part one to a singular event, but then immediately crashes back down to a period in part two in which Peter lies around in a depressed funk.  While this might be realistic, it does nothing to build the suspense.  The suspense thus must start all over again.  This may be acceptable in a long work (and even then I’m dubious), but in such a short book it’s just jarring and ruins the suspense.

I also found the ultimate payoff to be a bit disappointing.  While we find out one or two things about Peter’s family, we don’t get enough details to truly experience shock or horror.  Similarly, the ultimate final descent of Peter was a bit disappointing.  He doesn’t engage in any agency or become a committed cultist.  A lot of cult things are done to him, but he doesn’t really have the descent into madness promised.  He is tortured and made into a slave and has the mental and emotional breakdown such experiences could make someone experience, but he himself doesn’t turn into a raving Dagonite, for instance.

That said, there are some things that worked in the book.  As stated previously, the germ of the idea is great.  Peter’s nemesis/mentor, the tenant farmer family’s daughter, is delightfully powerful and sinister.  A couple of scenes were a great mix of titillation and horror, and the final climax was definitely a surprise.

Overall, then, it’s a book that tries to be a terrifying, gothic horror, but instead is a titillating grotesque bit of southern literature.  Fans of the Lovecraftian mythos will appreciate it for this, although the Lovecraftian elements themselves are sparse and a bit disappointing.  Recommended for big fans of grotesque, fantastical horror who don’t mind it leaning a bit more toward the grotesque than the scary side of horror.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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