I have been posting abut the modern mythology that tried to understand witchcraft as an authentic underground survival of ancient paganism, and how those myths of witchcraft and devil worship evolved into the modern farrago of Satanism. Throughout, I stress the role of academics, and of fiction-writers, whose ideas came to be believed as sober fact. Here, I want to look at one of the most influential books in this process, albeit one that is today largely forgotten. This is Herbert Gorman’s 1927 novel The Place Called Dagon.
I should say that I wrote about this topic some years ago in an essay called “Weird Tales: The Story of a Delusion,” in M. W. Anderson and Brett Alexander Savory, The Last Pentacle of the Sun: Writings In Support of the West Memphis Three (Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004): 35-41. That essay has been quite widely quoted, but the actual book is quite hard to get, hence the present posting. By the way, that book is the only example to date where I got to share pages with Metallica’s frontman James Hetfield, not to mention Margaret Cho.
In the 1920s, British Egyptologist Margaret Murray put forward her notorious theories about the witch-cult-as-pagan-survival, and these had a huge influence in the interwar years. They had a natural appeal in the United States, where an increasingly urban society was open to dark fantasies about what was going on in those rural backwaters. A sensationalist media focused on local tales of witches, wizards, and witch-murders (see my 2000 book Mystics and Messiahs). Those ideas fueled fictional writings in magazines like Weird Tales (founded 1923), and in the writings of authors like H. P. Lovecraft.
For present purposes, though, the main work was The Place Called Dagon, which portrays a secret cult in a western Massachusetts town populated by descendants of refugees from Salem, and still practicing what Lovecraft describes as “the morbid and degenerate horrors of the Black Sabbat.” The novel thus appeared several years before Dennis Wheatley attempted a similar English modernization of those stories in his novel The Devil Rides Out (1934).
Herbert Gorman (1893-1954) was born in Massachusetts, in Springfield. He is best known today as an early biographer of James Joyce, whose genius he already recognized by the early 1920s. However, his career had two other main aspects. First, he was thoroughly familiar with nineteenth century France, so that he could draw on French speculations concerning the Black Mass. The Black Mass achieved a literary revival in the decadent literature of late nineteenth century France, and an extensive account appeared in J.-K. Huysmans’ novel Là–Bas (Down There). Gorman knew this literature well.
But he also wrote extensively on nineteenth century American writers like Longfellow and Hawthorne, and it was precisely in 1927 that Gorman also published his biography, Hawthorne: A Study In Solitude. Now, the Hawthorne link is critical, since that writer too was deeply interested in New England witch persecutions. His classic “Young Goodman Brown” can be read as describing a genuine rural witch-cult, though the standard reading is that the story involves a fantasy or delusion. What Gorman did was to bring that idea into the twentieth century, and to take the unprecedented step of presenting an occult or Satanic theme in modern-day 1920s America.
Gorman argues that the Salem witches “belonged to a secret and blasphemous order that met all over the world, that they were divided into covens or parishes, that they each had their leader in the shape of a Black Man who represented the devil, and that they attempted to practice magic…. The trappings and the ceremonies and the results might appear supernatural, but that was because the people in those days did not know about such things as thought-transference, auto-suggestion and the impulsion of the will.”
But they had not vanished after the great persecutions of 1692. Instead, some of the group fled to “Dagon” where they raised the great altar of the Devil Stone. “By day they were taciturn people, carrying on the quiet masquerade of pioneers, building up homes in the clearing, pushing the forest farther and farther back; but when the moon rose, the madness that was in their blood swept them out of themselves and they became other creatures employing pagan symbols and ancient phallic ceremonials. They existed in a domain out of place and time then, in a land of hallucinations and dreams and primitive urges.”
In modern times, a charismatic leader “reinstituted witch meetings, formed a coven here, and made himself the ruling Black Man … These people lead two lives, and one of them is the surface life that we see going on about us. The other is the secret life that centers about the place called Dagon.”
At the climax, we see the secret rituals at Dagon, at which Asmodeus is invoked in a kind of Black Mass. The affair culminates in the attempted sacrifice of a woman, which is interrupted by the forceful intervention of the hero, who attacks and kills the group’s leader, the Reverend George Burroughs. That was of course the name of the actual minister at Salem.
The name Dagon evoked some bitter controversies of seventeenth century New England, which suggested that that Puritan society really had had its covert pagan side. The case in question was the notorious incident in 1627-28 in which dissidents erected a maypole of the type familiar from the English countryside, and held a festive gathering under the auspices of the Lord and Lady of the May. The story is recounted in Hawthorne’s “Maypole of Merry Mount” (1836), and is echoed faithfully by Gorman throughout The Place Called Dagon. Aware of its pagan connotations, outraged Puritan leaders denounced the maypole as a Dagon, after an idol mentioned in the Bible.
I think this is only coincidence, but Gorman’s Dagon appeared the very same year as John Buchan’s Witch Wood, which has some similarities, despite its late seventeenth century setting. These themes were just in the air by the late 1920s.
I can’t prove that Gorman knew Murray’s writings, but it would be an amazing coincidence if he did not (Lovecraft certainly cited her). But he does show how much of the witchcraft/Satanism mythology could be constructed fairly independently based on purely American sources.
But in the US as in England, the whole occult mythology was a purely literary/academic concoction.