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Literature / The Temple

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"The Temple" is a short story by H. P. Lovecraft, and his first story to be published in Weird Tales, for which he would later submit a large portion of his work. It was written in 1920 and published in 1925.

The story is presented as a manuscript that has been found in a bottle off the coast of Yucatán. The manuscript in question contains a chronicle written by Karl Heinrich, an iron fisted officer of the Imperial German Navy who commanded the submarine U-29 during World War I. In it, he describes a series of events that occur after his crew sunk a British freighter. The corpse of one of the sailors floats toward the deck of the U-boat, and one of the crewmen finds a strange-looking trinket in his hands. The superstitious crewmen begin to worry that it is a sign of something terrible, but the officers refuse to throw the trinket overboard.

However, over time, strange and unexplained events begin to fall upon the submarine. The crew begin experiencing nightmares and hallucinations which gradually drive them insane, made all the worse by Heinrich's refusal to surrender or throw the artifact overboard. From here things continue to go from bad to worse, as the crew becomes more and more restless, the submarine's navigational systems are inexplicably destroyed, and Heinrich is forced to kill all but fellow officer Klenze to stop an attempted mutiny. The two of them try to navigate for a time before Klenze descends into madness, unable to resist the call of an unknown entity.

Heinrich, now alone, drifts for some time until the submarine finally lands on the ocean floor near a series of ancient ruins. Starting to go mad, he feels compelled to enter a mysterious temple close by. He releases the manuscript in a bottle and willingly goes to his death in the ruins.

This story contains examples of:

  • All Germans Are Nazis: Weird example—Karl Heinrich presents as a caricature of a Nazi Nobleman, yet the archetype didn't even exist yet. This is likely a result of a) Lovecraft taking American and British propaganda about WWI Germany seriously and b) Lovecraft, himself a noted racist, trying to create a bigoted villain and overdoing it.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The story itself.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The Captain is a nearly-cartoonish version of an aristocratic Prussian officer, complete with the title of "Graf" (Count), which would make him an exceptional figure in the Imperial Navy. Out of 473 U-Boat commanders who served in World War I, the vast majority were not aristocrats (the traditional province of officers from noble families were the infantry and cavalry troops) and only 2 held the rank of Count (Matthias Graf von Schmettow and Hans Artur Graf von Schweinitz und Krain).
  • Artistic License Ships: The vessel's construction resembles no World War I sub ever to sail, and it's clearly inspired by Jules Verne's Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea:
    • World War I submarines did not have underwater searchlights (for what purpose? they were designed to shoot at surface ships) and most of them had no portholes, the only way to look outward was the periscope.
    • Most World War I subs were designed for a 50 meters (164 ft) operational depth. They might have dived to double that with only minor hull bending, anything deeper and they were crushed. Possibly lampshaded when the Captain notes how well the boat stands up to being far below its crush depth.
    • Combat submarines of both World Wars were not supposed to have airlocks. Combat frogmen were to be launched in small boats like the suicidal Kaiten or the Italian Maiale, or to use the torpedo tube as an emergency airlock.
    • No brass-helmet diving suit could keep a man alive below a few dozens of meters and most brass helmet diving suits had no rebreather and were made to be tethered by an air hose to the launching vessel anyway. Then again, Heinrich's lost his mind by the time he considers venturing out of the boat in a suit, so there's no guarantee his expectations of actually entering the city will be met.
    • Sailing underwater from July 2 to August 20 on battery power and compressed air in the tanks is a bit far-fetched for World War I sub technology, underwater range was shorter than 100 miles on battery power and air tanks were relatively small, since nobody expected the sub to stay underwater for longnote . The first generation of subs able to do that were the nuclear-powered boats of the 1960s.
  • Asshole Victim: The situation Heinrich finds himself in by the story's close is pretty nightmarish. However, it's hard to feel bad for him after he's spent the entire story making said fate unavoidable through his foolish, arrogant decisions. The peak of this comes when he declines to surrender to the Americans, effectively spelling certain doom for everyone aboard the U-boat.
  • Atlantis: The Captain eventually finds the ruins of an underwater city, and thinks that it must be Atlantis.
  • Badass Normal: For a certain definition of "badass". Karl Heinrich kills more people over the course of the story than most of Lovecraft's mythos entities.
  • Bad Boss: Heinrich kills almost the entire crew, eventually leaving him stranded in the disabled U-boat at the bottom of the sea.
  • The Captain: Karl Heinrich is captain of the U-29 though his actual rank is Lieutenant-Commander.
  • Chromosome Casting: All of the characters are male. This was common for Lovecraft, but justified here, since the whole story is set on a U-boat.
  • Cool Boat: Subverted in story, the submarine is anything but. To the readers, a WWI U-boat that can run underwater for weeks, with an airlock, porthole with underwater searchlights, and prepped with a diving suit is fantastically high tech for when it was written.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The viewpoint character, Captain the Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein, is essentially a Nazi Nobleman one generation ahead of his times. Lovecraft (who was probably influenced by war propaganda) heavily emphasizes his "Prussianism" throughout the narrative.
    • Made all the worse by his constantly looking down on his crew, and calling them "pigs". He even says some very unpleasant things about his own first officer Lt. Klenze, based on nothing more than his upbringing; in fact the only reason he seems to miss Klenze is simply because he is afraid without someone to talk to he'll Go Mad from the Isolation.
  • Driven to Suicide: Lt. Klenze.
  • Face Death with Dignity:
    • The Captain would rather his men die in the submarine than surrender to the enemy.
    • The story ends with him accepting his inevitable death as he goes willingly into the temple.
  • Going Down with the Ship: Not just the captain but the whole crew as well.
  • Honor Before Reason: The Captain commits war crimes, shoots members of his own crew just to maintain discipline, ignores their pleas to throw a simple trinket overboard and mocking their superstitions, and refuses to give any of them a chance at survival by surrendering to an American warship simply because he believes it to be dishonorable.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: There's strange mythos related stuff going on in the background, but the real monster in the story is Lieutenant-Commander Heinrich, war criminal and mass murderer.
  • Jerkass: The Captain is an extreme variation.
  • Kaiserreich: Talked about throughout.
  • Laughably Evil: Karl Heinrich's bigotry and cruelty are taken to blackly comedic levels.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Is the submarine actually cursed or is the whole thing simply the fault of the Captain's arrogance? Is there really some unknown, inhuman entity calling to the crew, or are they just driven mad by superstition, fear and cabin fever? Is the submarine's extremely implausible survival to an impossible depth (as is even lampshaded by the captain) supernatural or merely artistic license?
  • Message in a Bottle: How the Captain manages to get his log to the surface.
  • Murder Is the Best Solution: Lieutenant-Commander Heinrich tries to solve all of his problems by way of murder, eventually slaughtering his entire crew when they mutiny.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Just who or what, if anything, is calling out to the crew, is never explained.
  • Obi-Wan Moment: The Captain, realizing that he has no chance of survival, decides to enter the temple, knowing he likely will die of suffocation inside.
  • Overly Long Name: The narrator is identified as Karl Heinrich, Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein. You can see why most editors to this page just call him "The Captain".
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Done deliberately for once. Heinrich's racist towards anyone who isn't Prussian.
  • Sink the Lifeboats: At the beginning, the Captain sinks a British ship, makes pictures of the crew in the lifeboats, then sinks those as well.
  • Sub Story
  • Temple of Doom: The titular building.
  • Underwater Ruins: It's even suspected that this is in fact Atlantis.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The captain's description of certain events becomes increasingly suspect over the course of the story. When he executes the remaining crewmen for staging a mutiny, he claims they'd gone mad and that his hand was forced. However, we only have his word for it, so it's possible he's distorting what happened by chalking his crew's justified concerns up to them being weak-minded. Given how vindictive and honor-crazed the captain is, the crewmen may have been more lucid (or at least less incoherent) in demanding that they turn the ship around than he's letting on. In fact, how do we know it wasn't the captain himself who'd gone mad while his crew members tried to stop him?
    • The captain is the only person on-board with a firearm, which he uses quite liberally to violently suppress any perceived insubordination. Was the damage sustained to the ship during the mutiny entirely the result of the bare-handed crewmen? Or did the captain accidentally plug a few holes in the finer mechanical workings of the ship by recklessly firing his gun?
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: The Captain steadfastly refuses to believe in anything supernatural, and instead he's sure that he went insane and the things he describes are just his own delusions.
  • Villainous Valor: The Captain shows no fear facing certain death.
  • Villain Protagonist: The Captain, who is not only a war criminal but also incredibly cruel to his own crew. Since the story was written not long after World War I, and with the sinking of the Lusitania still fresh in people's minds, it's no surprise that a German military officer, particularly a U-boat commander, is depicted as thoroughly unsympathetic.