There were ten versions of Hamlet at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This figure included traditionalist productions as well as adaptations further afield—Hamlet and Ophelia Go Swimming, Hamlet Private Eye, etc. Hamlet the Musical was missing this year, which is a damn shame. Meanwhile, at Innsmouth Free Press, "She Walks in Shadows, the first all-woman Lovecraft anthology, will hold an open submissions period from November 15, 2014 to December 15, 2014.” Many are, apparently, still taking the calls of Cthulhu!
This serves to illustrate that Gehayi's "Dagon's Bargain" is, in many ways, a traditionalist's pick for discussion. "Dagon's Bargain" skillfully interweaves the world and questions of Hamlet with the Lovecraft mythos—the ur-canonical text hooking up with the ur-SFnal collaborative mythology.
Yet the selection is also unusual. Since "Dagon's Bargain" deals with out-of-copyright material, Gehayi, whose real name is Tracey Pennington*, could have published it in a variety of pro or semi-pro markets. Instead, she wrote it in response to the Night On Fic Mountain 2014 fanfic (fic) gift exchange and Dreamwidth's Gen Prompt Bingo Round 2, and posted it on Archive of Our Own (AO3). The critical lacuna where a literary discussion of fic might be persists today, despite AO3 (just one of many platforms) hosting 15998 fandoms, 389551 registered users, and 1265436 works as of 8:52pm, the 30th of August, 2014 (AO3 is constantly growing).
"Dagon's Bargain" follows the brothers we know from Shakespeare's play as Hamlet (senior, here called Horvendil) and Claudius (Fengr, or Claudius as a pejorative nickname) as they journey from childhood to manhood and political ascendancy. But these personal and political journeys are haunted by the effects of their father's terrible decisions in the past, and by darker, older occult secrets.
The story offers a fresh, substantive take on the common "what if the villain was actually nice!!" plot. Trying to be a moral person, to honor your relationships with people you love and your broader social obligations, is not enough to ensure a positive outcome, or even that you do ultimately lead a moral life. We already know how this story ends, even if "Dagon's Bargain" sets out to complicate or re-appropriate that ending.
"Dagon's Bargain" has a strong sense of place. The uncomfortable atmosphere that suffused Elsinore in Hamlet is here rendered as much a function of the castle as of the events it contains. Based on this fic, I started to think about the role of place in Hamlet itself in a new way. This is no mere cheap Innsmouth-ization of Elsinore. The fic fuses a Lovecraftian sense of unease with the material conditions and cold peril of Beowulf, another canon which seems a persistent touchpoint for the piece.
This excerpt in particular reminded me of Beowulf's swimming contest:
The battle was the sort of thing that songs and sagas are written about—two men of more than human strength warring on an island that was little more than a thin sward of grass in the middle of the ocean. Swords and then axes clashed; Horvendil's sailors later claimed that the sea and sky rang with blows as loud as Thor's hammer. One or two swore that the sun forgot to set for three days and was joined in the sky by the moon.
"Dagon's Bargain" is interested, in a way Lovecraft's work isn't, in the actual business of how its dread city runs, how people who are in on the secret, as well as those who know nothing about it, keep the mundane world this cancer is creeping in on up and running. I find eldritch horrors almost more convincing when you also have to contemplate supply chains.
"Dagon's Bargain" is also far more interested in locating Hamlet in history than the play itself or even Updike's reworking Gertrude and Claudius (2001) (which also tries to humanize and, in some degree, historicize these characters—though I think "Dagon's Bargain" has its own strengths in this regard). Except for the question of purgatory, Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's least historically located plays. Even when Shakespeare is using history, he's using it less as history and more as prompt (see any historian ever on how old people are in the history plays). Shakespeare's mentions of specific historical figures take place in the context of patronage—noble people want to see their families get a shout-out—and the play-genres available to Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a notorious taker of historical liberties, and some would call him a Tudor propagandist (as the excellent Doctor Who radio play "The Kingmaker" is at pains to point out—sorry I'm obsessed with good Big Finish. Sorry I'm not sorry).
So what does it mean to relocate very temporally contextual Lovecraftian eugenic specters of degradation in the past? I'm not sure, but it's provocative. In some ways the lurking Lovecraftian horror of what you've done and what you are, and what you feel you cannot stop yourself from doing in the future, seems to echo the unwitting complicity of being born into privilege in oppressive social hierarchies. How can a man fight the patriarchy? How can an American effectively contest America? How can a person speak to a legacy and current moment of empire? The characters in "Dagon's Bargain" wear themselves down and expend all their energy trying to understand and unmake sins they didn't initially commit, but which they are, sometimes without understanding as much, in the process of furthering. All their strength and effort doesn't change the implacable movement of something infinitely beyond the personal.
"Dagon's Bargain" doesn't simply fill a lacuna or "correct" inaccuracies, it gets something out of situating itself more carefully in time. It gets the aforementioned "horror more horrifying with supply chains" effect, but also it generates a sense of social reality that adds to the piece's tension. What other people will do to you, think of you, is a real threat throughout. The social world is deeply important in this story. It's a king's fear of the wrath of his people that drives him to make the original bargain with Dagon, and it's a king's fear that people will think him mad that sees our core characters whispering in the dark, where no one can hear them—presaging the play's later concern with madness and appearances.
The story's worldbuilding succeeds along these lines (reminding me, in the process, of the truly good bits of American Gods):
Then one day, while the king was visiting his old friend, who called himself Polonius, he found a new ritual—or rather, a very old one—in an ancient scroll. He might not have noticed it at any other time, but it was cruelly cold and rainy that spring; crops were rotting in the field while nets came up empty.
Neither Gerutha nor I asked for explanations; we both knew that when famine strikes a land and will not leave, the king must be sacrificed, for the king and the land are one, and the king's life enriches the land's. And Father would have been at greater risk than most kings, for his marriage had been barren long before the land had. He would have had weeks left to live. A month or two at most. If ever he had needed to prove that he could kindle life in a woman—and hence in the land—he had needed it then.
Lovecraft is not particularly good at giving you people—not so as you care about what happens to them. Hamlet doesn't do a particularly good job with making you care about some of these people as people either. In both cases, what we value is more general depictions of mental states in fugue. "Dagon's Bargain" is, in contrast, dedicated to creating and knowing characters, and its interest in doing so feels itself fanfictional. (Again, reading and writing fan fiction proves a useful and enjoyable way of coming to know the core text by holding it up against different lights.)
Gehayi gives us a very knowable Claudius—everything she does with the nasty nickname that becomes his name is thoughtful and clever. The brothers' relationship is the story's core. It’s a Jacob and Esau struggle between a greater and a lesser son, a magical actualization of the stuff of sibling rivalry. Before the action of the story, the boys' father has made Horvendil a party to and beneficiary of the magical theft of Claudius's patrimony. Horvendil is innocent, yet benefits enormously from what their father has done. Claudius has cause to resent his father and brother bitterly, and Horvendil to resent his father for involving him in it. Yet the narrow arcs of resentment and revenge are subsumed by the characters' intelligence and practicality. The story is transmuted into a more nuanced narrative that follows their attempts to redress this ur-crime, to live with its effects, and, they hope, through its aftershocks. They're too sensible to loathe one another for what can't be fixed now, too afraid of the greater dangers they face to bother with less cosmic disputes, and ultimately, unable to forget and uninterested in forgetting their love for and trust in one another. This alters our reception of the events of the play, and renders them, in light of this alternative prehistory, all the more tragic.
"Dagon's Bargain" endows Gerutha/Gertrude with a personality and agency more effectively than Gertrude and Claudius managed to. She's an unusual character, defined by her coolness, her calm acceptance of terrible things, and her sly, practical intelligence. When Horvendil/Hamlet asks his brother to do something desperate in an effort to fight the Elder God's growing power, Claudius prevails on him to inform his wife of his plans: "We both spoke to Gerutha (who was not pleased that Horvendil had made such arrangements without telling her)." Gerutha expects to be informed. She is not angry that she was not, but is, more grimly, "not pleased." She then deals capably with the situation, showing her capacity to assess her problems in a relativistic light and handle trials that would fray the nerves of a less cool, pragmatic person. This seems a very plausible, likable extrapolation of Gertrude's character from the script of Hamlet, if not its performance reception.
In "Dagon's Bargain," for plot reasons Claudius must father sons with Gerutha/Gertrude in his brother’s place. This ties in with the classic "Claudius is Hamlet's biological father" theory, which I've always quite liked. Similarly I'm rather charmed by Gerutha and Claudius's slow-burn romance in this story. The way Gerutha accepts the proposal after some discussion is very elegant, and very her:
Gerutha said nothing, but a moment or two later, I felt her finger tracing a pattern over and over on the skin of my hand. Not until I went back to the palace did I discover that she had dipped her finger in the cold ashes of the fire, drawing a rune that resembled a Roman B on the back of my left hand. Berkano, the rune of desire, love affairs, birth and new beginnings.
Ultimately, "Dagon's Bargain" isn't just a successful conceit, or "just" an interaction with a group of texts. It does its own work. It really succeeds as horrific SF. Look at this powerful lead-up:
I yelped—not at all a dignified thing for a king to do—and Horvendil instantly clapped his hand over my wide mouth. "Quiet," he hissed. "Look out over the ocean, and wait for your eyes to adjust."
For a long time I saw nothing but an endless plain of grayish-black waves shimmering beneath the full moon. Apparently Gerutha, like me, thought this was a waste of time; every so often, one or both of us would glance away from the sea to Horvendil, silently pleading for him to let us stop. But all he would say was, "Look. Look as if you were steering a ship. Imagine that lives depend on your spotting peril before it guts the hull."
Then . . .
How do I describe it?
What follows is one of the most effective horrific reveals in Lovecraftiana. I found this particularly poignant, given what they're about to learn about their father's bargain and its consequences: "[b]ut worst of all were its froglike features, for I could not look at them without seeing an obscene mirror of my own."
The prose is good, but economic. It doesn't draw the gravity away from the narrative to itself. "In the spring of my twenty-first year, our father, Gervendil, drowned in a sudden storm and our mother, on being told the news, fell to the earth like a tree killed by lightning. As suddenly as that, we were orphaned—and so was our country." This approach really makes sense if you think about the fic's efforts to balance its score of background influences: the huge canonical weight of Shakespeare's Greatness (™), and the sheer . . . Lovecraftianness of Lovecraft's prose. I like the way Gehayi turns a simple sentence. "I already knew that my envy of my brother had grown over the years, and that it hurt like a brown bear clawing at my heart." A brown bear. Brown is perfect. Brown is the color of an ugly lumbering resentment against someone you should cleanly love, clawing at your heart. The story piles relatively non-ornate sentences into powerful, lingering, cinematic imagery.
I had some plot-level issues with the story. We hear information about how non-primogenitor inheritance works in this kingdom too late in the story, and it seems to conflict with the earlier points in the narrative where the king's sons were unambivalently referred to as the heirs to his throne. We don't get quite enough information about how and why young Hamlet is repelled by his birth father. Is it just that Claudius is deformed, or is it something more? What does Hamlet know or suspect?
When the brothers are young boys, a nobleman has a minor conflict with them. There's no reason to suspect this nobleman was never alive, not that I can see, anyway. Yet the interlude closes with the sentence "[h]ad he lived long after taunting me and confronting my brother? Had he lived at all?" This just made me tilt my head and squint. The hell does that mean? The other occasions on which we don’t know much about what happened or why it mattered (the battles to learn the foe's name, the circumstances of the pirate king and Rorik's deaths) certainly didn't spoil the whole for me, but they did annoy me.
I do wonder about craft and expectation for fic versus a professional short story. I think this is very well-crafted as a fic, but while I'm personally willing to let these issues slide in that context, I'd be more annoyed about them in a pro-market story. Are my fic expectations lower because there's no money involved? Yet "lower" is the wrong word, because professional fiction frequently gets things wrong that fic never would. God help you if you're looking for Thrones, Dominations to do the character or setting work of even a half-decent Wimsey fic. And, to make sweeping generalizations that are in certain areas ludicrously inaccurate (there's plenty of rubbish fic on this score, and plenty of right-on SFF), fic's sex-gender-orientation conversation does things the generality of popular SFF hasn't gotten to yet.
Then again, I've also read many a professional short story that is infinitely less well-written and thoughtful than this. I've read many a Hugo-nominated short piece that this puts to shame, simply by existing. So setting up professionalism against fic is, perhaps, constructing a false binary. But it does provoke me to interrogate my definition of literary goodness. Does a good work run a critical gauntlet and come through immaculate, or does the good work build up something possibly flawed, but substantive?
The ending of "Dagon's Bargain" is weaker than the story that has preceded it. It makes some quips that work for me: "The Norse, led by one Wiglek (though he prefers the nickname Fortinbras, for which I can hardly blame him)." And some that don't: "I doubt that [Hamlet] would believe in gigantic amphibious demon gods from the ocean's depths even if he saw Dagon rising before him." The later is a bit too pert, included for the sake of humor (the absurdity of the sentence, a poke at Hamlet's famous indecision and skepticism) rather than to further the project of the story. (What a loser Fortinbras is though! Remember when he was essentially Prince in the Kenneth Branagh version?)
There's a meebly fatalism that doesn't necessarily feel earned, or like the natural conclusion of the story. Horvendil's decline and death worked well, and comparatively Claudius's anxiety about his imminent end feels rather "whelp, it happens in the play." The end is perhaps too influenced by that whole "I write this now the end is nigh!" Lovecraft schtick.
But the reader finds a definite reward upon reaching the end, even if that end is slightly unsatisfying. You're greeted with a selection of sources the author has drawn from, cool and helpful links contained in AO3's neat little Author’s Notes box. I am getting more and more frustrated with stories and articles that refuse to know they're on the Internet. Sites that won't pop in a collection of links to further information when it obviously might be of interest, because it would spoil the illusion that you're reading a journal article. Sites with an undue interest in word-counts, not as craft-tightening guide-rails (legit!), but for their own sake. The Internet has unlimited page-space, and requires a new poetics, a new economy of space. Research and considered pieces indicate that the "long read," which we know is a thing, demonstrates people's desire and willingness to read when they decide to read stuff on the Internet.
Fanfic writers can be less precious about the idea of "writing for the Internet" than scholars or pro-writers. So—you want to know why the Dagon of the title is important? Bam. Here's a link to Lovecraft's "Dagon," in full. Engage with her sources further or don't. Read like you're on a damn computer.
To stress the take-home point: despite some snags near the end, "Dagon's Bargain" manages to make a "Cthulhu-your-everything!" theme that I don't care much about fresh and readable. The fic is, self-evidently, a literary object suitable for broad enjoyment and criticism under conventional rhetorics—though I’d argue that fan fiction demands the development of additional critical literary discourses to address the degree and ways in which a work succeeds as fan fiction. This would to some extent be simply a formalization, or the creation of a critical equivalent, of existing fannish structures. Putting aside for a moment their important community functions, what, after all, are comments, reviews, and recs doing?
There's a lot that could be said here about the overlaps and disjunctures between SFF fandom and media fandom, and the publishing and reception contexts in which this piece sits. I decided not to write about these questions in favor of allowing this piece to breathe, to be celebrated as a work of fiction. I wanted to review this fic as an object. I especially wanted to avoid participating in another fan studies attempt to explain or justify ourselves to the skeptics (for fuck's sake, why do we care?). Yet I'd like the piece about this fic, or something like it, and publishing contexts to exist—I think it could do valuable work. And I'd like a thousand more literary, analytic engagements with fan fiction—they'd be useful to and pleasurable for me as an academic, critic, genre reader and writer, and fic reader and writer. As the communal project of fan studies continues to develop, I look forward to the work to come with great expectations.
* The ethics of discussing fan fiction outside of its communal context are still very unclear. Though the fic is publicly available on AO3, we sought and received the author's permission before publishing this piece, and asked whether she wanted her real name mentioned in this context.
Kudos to Molly Katz for recommending this fic to me and for subsequently discussing it with me. Some of the ideas herein are a product of that discursive collaboration.
Erin Horáková (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.