When I first read this in 2013, I was fairly familiar with the Southern Gothic genre. Flannery O’Connor was and still is one of my favorite writers. I had also tried and failed to like Faulkner (I’m still willing to give him another go at some point). I had read all of Cormac McCarthy’s early non-Western novels which I liked, though not so well as his later work. I’d read the odd book here and there by others who worked in a similar vein. So the Southern Gothic parts of this were recognizable, despite the exaggeration and grotesquery that attends the genre. Even though I’d already started reading authors who to some extent or another are influenced by Lovecraft, I was insufficiently familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos to make much sense of that side of things. I knew I had read something disturbing and good, but couldn’t say too much past that. It was particularly strange given the Chappell novels I read previously were in a picturesque folklore Appalachian vein. Very funny, very moving and very good, but they in no way prepared me for this. The only similarity I could see was the high quality of the prose. Returning to the book now, having recently read a lot of Lovecraftian fiction and even more recently more fiction by Lovecraft himself, I had a better sense of that genre and as a result enjoyed the novel much more this time around. The two genres blend disturbingly well.
Peter Leland, a scholarly Methodist minister, inherits an old family home and moves in with his wife for an extended sabbatical. He is working on a book about the relation between the ancient worship of the Philistine god Dagon and modern obsession with sexuality that pervaded culture (for context the book was published in 1968). Walking around in it he begins to become obsessed with the place and with the papers of his grandfather (or great-grandfather) who seemed to be involved in a pagan religion of some kind; the reader of Lovecraft will recognize it as some splinter of the Cthulhu cult. It becomes likely that the Biblical Dagon and the lovecraftian Dagon are the same entity. He and his wife encounter a family that live on his land. They claim to have done so for generations. There is something off about them; the reader of Lovecraft will recognize that they seem to come from a similar lineage to the fish people in Shadow over Innsmouth. Peter begins to become obsessed with the daughter of that family. From there the Southern Gothic and Lovecraftian tropes mix in fascinating ways as Peter loses his grip on reality, does horrible things and has horrible things done to him.
This is a brilliantly conceived, well executed, and extremely disturbing story that I suspect will stick with me much longer this time.
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