Thursday, June 13, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "The Temple"

Spooky Synopsis: The last day of the life of Karl Heinrich, Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein, a U-29 Lieutenant-Commander in the German Navy, was August 20, 1917. How do we know this? Because a curious manuscript written in his hand washed up on the Yucatan coast, a manuscript that detailed the doom of Heinrich's ship after it sank a British freighter and slaughtered the remnants of its lifeboat-bound crew. Confounded by a mechanical malfunction, the German sailors fell into a panic as the U-boat drifted inexorably deeper and deeper toward the ocean floor. Only Heinrich lived long enough to record what lay there -- the remnants of an ancient society unknown by mankind.

Lovecraftian Language: "I cannot reckon the number of hours I spent in gazing at the sunken city with its buildings, arches, statues, and bridges, and the colossal temple with its beauty and mystery. Though I knew that death was near, my curiosity was consuming; and I threw the searchlight's beam about in eager quest. The shaft of light permitted me to learn many details, but refused to shew anything within the gaping door of the rock-hewn temple; and after a time I turned off the current, conscious of the need of conserving power. The rays were now perceptibly dimmer than they had been during the weeks of drifting. And as if sharpened by the coming deprivation of light, my desire to explore the watery secrets grew. I, a German, should be the first to read those aeon-forgotten ways!"

Eerie Evaluation: Think of the "The Temple" as a pale imitation of "Dagon." Yes, yes, it was written years later, but it shares so many of the same characteristics that comparison becomes inevitable. A World War I time period. A nautical milieu. A doomed protagonist who finds evidence of a (mostly) dead civilization beneath the waves. But where the plight of the unnamed protagonist of "Dagon" elicited pity and horror, it's hard to feel anything but contempt for Heinrich. He makes Full Metal Jacket's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman look like a man of breeding and refinement. One doesn't need clairvoyance to realize that Lovecraft singularly disliked Germany's politicals. His disgust finds focus in the person of Heinrich, a character he makes both cartoonishly cruel and stupidly predictable. Heinrich dismisses a fellow sailor who has an inkling of the supernatural terrors to come as "a superstitious Alsatian swine." He decries "the unjust war of aggression which the English pig-dogs are waging upon the Fatherland." He summarily executes two men stricken with insanity, giving the event about as much weight in his narrative as a record of their latitude and longitude. He never misses an opportunity to praise Germany's excellencies and his own impeccable breeding. Yeah, not exactly someone you'd want for your roommate. I half expected him to start twirling his moustache in maniacal glee. The plotting, pacing and payoff of "The Temple" are all quite good, but Lovecraft would've done well to realize that you can't expect readers to care about a caricature.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):

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To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.

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