Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Temple (1925) by H. P. Lovecraft

   The Temple is one of Lovecraft's most underrated stories. The great Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi wrote of it; "It is marred by somewhat clumsy and obvious satire against the German protagonist of the tale, and also by a plethora of supernatural details that do not seem to fuse into any unity; but its portrayal of the narrator's gradual descent into madness is powerful." Joshi was right about the portrayal of the protagonists' growing madness as well as the over-the-top satire. He was wrong about the supernatural details not fusing together. As far as I can tell, this seems to be one of the very rare times that Joshi just doesn't get whats going on in a Lovecraft story.
   Karl Heinrich Von Altberg-Ehrenstein is the lieutenant-commander in charge of the submarine U-29. After callously sinking the SS Victory, as well as its lifeboats, the U-29 surfaces with the dead body of one of the Victory's crew clinging to it. A small ivory head is found in the corpses pocket and is kept by one of the U-29's officers.
   Later, members of the crew become ill and some start to have delusions. They report seeing the dead corpses from the Victory staring in at them from the portholes. Karl Heinrich, being kind of a hard-ass, takes "drastic steps." Then there is an explosion in the engine room that cripples the submarine, leaving it only able to surface and dive. On sighting a U. S. ship, many members of the crew beg to be allowed to surrender. Sadly, they asked the wrong iron-willed German. Karl Heinrich has these traitors executed.
   Soon the ballast tanks bust and the submarine sinks to the bottom of the ocean. The remaining crewmen attempt mutiny. They damage some instruments but are killed by Heinrich. The only remaining crewman is Lieutenant Klenze, the officer with the small ivory head, and he is slowly going insane.
   At this time the U-29 is drifting while surrounded by dolphins. These dolphins should not be able to survive at such depths. The dolphins continue to press closely about the submarine, never going to the surface to breathe as they should.
   Soon Klenze is completely mad, claiming that "He is calling! He is calling!" Klenze desperately wants to leave the submarine, despite being at the bottom of the sea. Karl Heinrich agrees to operate the airlock for Klenze, sending him to his doom. Heinrich, alone now, drifts for a couple more days until the U-29 settles on the ocean floor. Through the porthole he is astounded to see the remains of an ancient city, perhaps Atlantis itself. Heinrich can see what seems to be an ornate building that he judges to be a temple. He even takes out a diving suit to examine the outside of the temple more closely.
   During the next couple days, as the battery power of the submarine slowly drains, he finds that he is suffering his own hallucinations. He seems to see flickering light coming from the temple and hear a beautiful choral hymn. He slips into his diving suit, leaves a record of events in a bottle (later found off the coast of Yucatan) and goes willingly into the temple.
   The supernatural events actually do make sense. The head found on the sailor probably was a likeness of the god of the temple, though that is just a guess. Perhaps the sailor was even a latter-day worshipper. Whatever force is in the temple seems to have the power to reanimate and control the dead. The crew of the U-29 actually did see those corpses peering in from the portholes, though I believe that the power in the temple also drove the crew insane. The dolphins were probably also dead and under the temple powers' control, that is why they never surfaced for air. They seem to have been guiding the U-29 to the sunken city, which is where the power of the temple wanted it to go. Finally, it lures Karl Heinrich inside, most assuredly to his well-deserved death.
   The best thing about the story is its truly haunting atmosphere and creeping suspense. Far from being a minor story, it is really one of Lovecraft's best early efforts. It can be found in The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories from Penguin and Dagon and Other Macabre Tales from Arkham House.


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