“He is calling! He is calling!”
The question of whom is doing the calling above, well that’s one open to interpretation, but whoever it may be they reside in an ancient temple submerges deep below the waves of the Atlantic… Of course, this being an H. P. Lovecraft tale, and involving a ‘calling’ from one that dwells in a temple deep below the waves, I would invite you to draw your own conclusions… as Lovecraft neglects to clarify what dwells within the temple, leaving it instead to the fevered imagination of his readers, whom with the hindsight of the modern eye can easily make the leap to Howard’s most famous creation, old squid face himself…
This though is a tale written in 1920, for all this is the 21st post in this blog series, we are still in the early days of H.P.’s career. The foundations of his mythology were still only just being laid, it was still some six years until Lovecraft penned ‘The Call of Cthulhu‘. In all likelihood, Big C had not even begun to form as an idea in the darker recesses of Howard’s mind. At most this is a tale based upon the germ of an idea, the thing in the temple may have been many things, but Cthulhu it wasn’t, not yet at any rate. Indeed one common theory is that the temple is part of R’lyeh, the city in ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth‘, though that tale was not written until the back end of 1931, eleven years later, so one would suspect this is an even greater stretch of logic…
The tale itself tells of the last few weeks in the life of Karl Heinrich Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein, the somewhat brutal, cruel and arrogant commander of an Imperial German Navy U-Boat in the first world war. He is a man with little to recommend him, so sympathy with the main protagonist is not easy to gain, but then that can be said for many of Lovecraft’s characters. The narrative opens with the sinking a British Frigate, and von Altberg ordering his crew to then sink the British lifeboats against the generally accepted rules of conduct for the war at sea. As I say, the commander is far from a pleasant man, but he is also the architect of his own demise in this regard, for it is this cruel act that sets in motion a chain of events that leave the U-Boat at the bottom of the ocean, his crew all dead, and the strange lights of the temple of the title calling to him.
There is a lot going on in this tale, which is one of the criticisms thrown at it. Unlike most of Lovecraft’s fiction, which tends to focus on a primary aspect of a tale, and focus events around it, ‘The Temple‘ wanders down many supernatural pathways. The strange piece of ivory found on a body clinging to the side of the U-boat after the sinking of the frigate. Dead sailors swimming around the sub. The craft itself get caught in strange currents dragging it southwards, losing power and all control as the craft sinks slowly downwards, while the crew mutinies (before being summarily executed by von Altberg.) Indeed most of the crew are eventually killed by their captain for one reason or another after they suffer from nightmares, strange visions, strange noises and other horrors. There is, as i say, a lot going on in this story and it doesn’t all quite gel as much as the writer wished. All the while von Altberg witnesses his junior officer Lieutenant Klenze, the one who took the strangely carved ivory figurine, descend into madness as the U-boat itself descends to the ocean floor.
It is Klenze who issues those ominous words I started with, “He is calling, he is calling.” Just before von Altberg helps the Lieutenant into an airlock, giving a final ‘mercy’ to the madman, or perhaps just to finally shut him up… All before the currents take the U-boat to its final destination, a ruined city on the ocean floor which von Altberg assumes (wrongly one would surmise, this being a Lovecraft’s lost city of a cyclopean nature) to be the fabled Atlantis, in which there lays a temple from which strange lights can be seen through the portholes. Finally, the tale ends with von Altberg walking out of the airlock himself in his diving suit, and walking towards the temple, the strange sounds and hallucinations driving him to the end of the ‘iron Germanic will‘ of which he is so proud. But not before he places his logs in an airtight bottle and releases them to the ocean currents.
I should declare some history with this tale, it is one of my favourites, as much for its flaws as anything. The criticisms of the tale, its lack of coherence, the many elements that swamp the reader, I agree with. But I take the narrative to be written by a narrator on the edge of sanity. While Klenze falls to madness before von Altberg, Altberg is not far behind. Indeed, one interpretation of the tale which I have always held to personally is that Klenze and Von Altberg are one in the same. Von Altberg is watching himself go mad, and observing it dispassionately by believing that it is happening to his junior officer… While that interpretation is perhaps a stretch beyond what Lovecraft intended, (and may have something to do with being a member of the ‘Fight Club’ generation) it does make the tale hang together more and answers some of the criticisms of the story.
While I am fond of this story, however, I can also see the flaws so it scores only four tentacles out of six, but I recommend it all the same. There is an ominous to it, it speaks of more to come, it speaks of old gods in lost cities and the madness in the dark which could consume us all. While the ideas at its core are far from fully formed, it lays the foundations for the mythos and the horrors to come. This is Lovecraft feeling his way around the edges of everything that makes his writings what they are, and finally, it hints at what is to come, who is to come, what lays beneath the waves, the eater of minds, the edges of sanity and the void below.
‘He is coming… he is coming!’ indeed…
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