On “The Temple” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

Self-parody, or self-hatred?

“The Temple” (full text) may have been written in 1920 but it did not see print until November 1925, at which point it was picked up by Weird Tales under the then still relatively-new editorship of Farnsworth Wright.

Having yet to dangle my toes over the oceanic cliff that is Lovecraft’s correspondence, I have no real idea about how this story made its way into print but I am intrigued by the implied change in Lovecraft’s ambitions and workflow.  Prior to “The Temple”, Lovecraft would finish a piece and then either stick it in a drawer, publish it in a zine he happened to edit, or farm it out to one of his friends in the amateur journalism scene. This story was different in that rather than finishing the story and pushing it out to one of his friends who would generally get it into print within a few months, Lovecraft wrote this story five years before it saw print and when it did see print it was not in an amateur magazine but in a paying professional market. Did Lovecraft stick the story in a drawer and later decide to revise it? Was Lovecraft submission-spamming the pulps only to land an unexpected hit with this story? Where did the confidence to submit come from? Why was he patient with this story but not with the ones that came before? These are interesting questions that speak to Lovecraft’s development as a working writer and I can see myself having to start reading the correspondence if only to get a better handle on his own changing attitudes to his writing.

“The Temple” is set aboard a German U-Boat during World War I. At the start of the story, the U-Boat is preying on British shipping in the North Atlantic and after successfully sinking both a ship and its lifeboats, the U-Boat re-surfaces to find a sailor clinging to the outside of the submarine. The Sailors search the corpse and find a strange piece of carved ivory that one of the officers decides to keep.

Things start to go wrong as soon as the ivory arrives on-board. At first, the submarine is caught in an uncharted current that drags it off-course and then a mysterious explosion cripples the engines and leaves the submarine afloat in the middle of the ocean. Unable to move under its own power and unable to radio for help, the submarine drifts for weeks and weeks as morale on-board first declines and then begins to spiral down into madness, forcing the ship’s commanding officer and his side-kick to brutally punish and repress the crew in an effort to keep control. It is in this section that “The Temple” really shines as Lovecraft presents the ship’s commanding officer as a tyrannical martinet who gleefully murders his crew whilst justifying his actions with an escalating series of racial, regional, and class-based stereotypes:

“On the morning of July 2 we sighted a warship flying American colours, and the men became very restless in their desire to surrender. Finally Lieut. Klenze had to shoot a seaman named Traube, who urged this un-German act with especial violence. This quieted the crew for the time, and we submerged unseen.”

“I could not help observing, however, the inferior scientific knowledge of my companion. His mind was not Prussian, but given to imaginings and speculations which have no value. The fact of our coming death affected him curiously, and he would frequently pray in remorse over the men, women, and children we had sent to the bottom; forgetting that all things are noble which serve the German state.”

“My course at once became clear. He was a German, but only a Rhinelander and a commoner; and he was now a potentially dangerous madman.”

The entry for “The Temple” in Joshi and Schultz’s An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia argues that the story is let down by “crude satire on the protagonist’s militarist and chauvinist sentiments” and I can definitely see where that criticism is coming from. This story was written in the aftermath of World War I and I imagine that the vision of Germans as jack-booted militaristic automata was probably as popular then as it was in the aftermath of World War II. However, while it’s easy to imagine Lovecraft using crude ethnic stereotypes as a basis for characterisation, I think it’s worth examining the ways in which these stereotypes are used.

For starters, I think it’s worth pointing out that the protagonist’s chauvinism and inhumanity increases as the story progresses. Though never exactly sympathetic, the protagonist does ‘progress’ from the kind of militaristic chauvinism that is common to all professional soldiers to something far darker and a lot more weird. It’s one thing to shoot a man who is on the point of causing a mutiny, it is quite another to justify the murder of a close colleague on the grounds that he is both a commoner and a Rhinelander. “The Temple” is a story about how the crew of a U-Boat is driven mad by a piece of ivory and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that this slow escalation of chauvinism is how the madness manifests itself in the mind of the story’s narrator. Yes, the language the stereotypical and yes it is rather O.T.T. but I think the slow escalation of chauvinism works in context.

Another path people have taken into this story is to assume that Lovecraft’s depiction of the German officer is some form of self-parody in that there is little difference between the insane racial hierarchies at work in the mind of the U-Boat commander and the insane racial hierarchies at work in the mind of the person who wrote “The Terrible Old Man”. In truth, I think this is a more compelling interpretation than Joshi’s vision of the story as I find it rather difficult to believe that a man who wrote a story about the shiftiness of white people born outside of New England would produce a satire poking fun at the idea of a Prussian looking down on someone from the Rhineland. While I will doubtless return to this question when I write about later stories, I think the idea of Lovecraft as a self-parodist stems from the fact that a lot of Lovecraft’s most urgent writing seem to come from a place where he is teetering on the brink of radical self-discovery.

If I had to describe the sensibility that informs Lovecraft’s most striking work I would ask you to reflect on all the tiny white lies you tell about yourself because they make you feel good: Maybe you believe you could have finished college if only you’d had the money. Maybe you believe that you could easily get back into the jeans you wore in high-school. Maybe you believe that your family love and respect you. Now imagine having each and every one of those tiny white lies ripped away from you in the most brutal fashion imaginable. That is the place that Lovecraft wrote from.

Lovecraft grew up in a big house with a private library. He had a large, supportive, and well-connected family whose money and power meant that Howard could do and be anything he wanted. This was what Lovecraft was raised to expect from life and yet every single one of these things was taken from him: First his father was dragged away to a mental institution, and then his grandfather died, taking the family fortune with him. Then his family was scattered to the winds and all of those connections and all of that ancient aristocratic clout amounted to nothing as Lovecraft was forced to contend with the fact that everything he had been brought up to believe was a lie and a sham. He was not a gentleman, or an aristocrat. He was a loser… a near-penniless wretch living in a small apartment with a mother that repeatedly told him to his face that he was monstrously ugly. This sense of intense precariousness and fragility, of truths that are so brittle as to be indistinguishable from outright lies pervades all of Lovecraft’s fiction and is absolutely central not only to his vision of human sanity as something that just shatters at the first inconvenient truth, but also his vision of human civilisation as a thin layer of ice atop an ocean of existential blackness. Lovecraft’s earliest stories are about the descendants of wealthy families camping in the ruins of their long-lost status and even his odd-ball experiments with comedy like “Old Bugs” and A Reminiscence of Dr Samuel Johnson” are about the fragility of social status and the ways in which the presumptuous might be brought low.

Part of what makes Lovecraft interesting as both a writer and a figure is that fact that his vision of human comfort as something brittle and fragile sits cheek-by-jowl with all sorts of weirdly racist delusions. Lovecraft’s vision is one of profound existential despair and pessimism about the potential of human knowledge and institutions. He knows that all beliefs are easily overturned, that all buildings are easily undermined, and all vanities are easily set-alight. He knows that everything we love and everything we believe can be taken from us in a heartbeat, but he also believes that the Eskimo are degenerate savages and are deserving only of our genocidal contempt.

Frankly, the only way in which these two set of beliefs can be reconciled is by viewing the latter as a defence against the former. For much of his life, Lovecraft was a reactionary and the primary emotional force behind reactionary politics is insuring that you are not a part of the group that is at the bottom of the pyramid. Lovecraft was a racist because he was a loser… he hated ethnic minorities and people born outside of New England because he went from fancy lad aristocracy to starving in a shitty apartment and the only way he could preserve his self-esteem was by buying into the idea that there were people more deserving of political brutalisation than him.

A lot of people who are in Lovecraft’s position allow those self-esteem preserving delusions to consume them but Lovecraft did not write about square-jawed heroes gleefully revelling in racial holy war. He wrote about skinny strung-out weirdos who were exactly one occult tome away from absolute madness. Lovecraft was a racist, he had his delusions but the loss of so many comforting lies meant that belief in his own personal superiority to the bulk of humanity never sat comfortably in Lovecraft’s head. He knew what he was, he couldn’t escape it and much of what is described as self-parody is really just Lovecraft squirming on the end of a hook, teetering on the brink of radical self-acceptance and using humour to escape back out into fantasy. “The Temple” is an interesting story as the rhetoric deployed by the U-Boat commander is very close to the ideas expressed in “The Terrible Old Man” but it’s projected outwards onto a socially and psychologically-acceptable other. This is a story about a man whose imminent death forces him to retreat further and further into ornate racial fantasies, but it’s not Lovecraft writing about himself… oh no… it’s Lovecraft writing about a stiff-necked Prussian.

The story ends with the U-Boat sinking to the bottom of the ocean and encountering a drowned temple, the voices in the U-Boat commander’s head intensify until he feels compelled to don an diving suit and venture out into the inky blackness:

“I have no fear, not even from the prophecies of the madman Klenze. What I have seen cannot be true, and I know that this madness of my own will at most lead only to suffocation when my air is gone. The light in the temple is a sheer delusion, and I shall die calmly, like a German, in the black and forgotten depths. This daemoniac laughter which I hear as I write comes only from my own weakening brain. So I will carefully don my diving suit and walk boldly up the steps into that primal shrine; that silent secret of unfathomed waters and uncounted years.”

I must admit, the conclusion to “The Temple” left me rather cold. On a structural level, this feels very much like a re-working of “The Statement of Randolph Carter” in that the really horrible mind-bending stuff all takes place off-screen and is present in the story thanks only to implication and the presence of some cutting edge early 20th Century technology. Indeed, it’s interesting to visit these early stories after reading some of Joshi’s commentary on the later Lovecraft as one of Joshi’s better known takes is the idea that despite featuring magic and big rubbery monsters, the materialism of Lovecraft’s worldview means that he works better as writer of science-fiction than a writer of fantasy. I certainly agree that Lovecraft’s SFnal stories are a lot stronger than his Fantastical ones but it is interesting to note that while the Lovecraft who wrote “At The Mountains of Madness” felt compelled to make the science feel at least somewhat plausible, the Lovecraft who wrote “The Temple” had little to no interest in getting the science right on his U-Boat. It’s not just that the crew survives for an entire month with no power and no re-supply, or that apparently U-Boats had windows that allowed them to see outside when they were at the bottom of the ocean, it’s that Lovecraft’s U-Boats had air-locks and deep-sea diving gear that allowed sailors to climb out and wander around at the bottom of the sea. I hate to be the “Um… actually… space elevators don’t work that way” guy but I found these details quite distracting and that’s not something I can say about any of Lovecraft’s later works.

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