Only a handful of Lovecraft’s stories take place at sea. Dagon and The White Ship involve ocean travel but also involve perilous landfall. There is the climactic struggle on the open sea with you-know-who in The Call of Cthulhu, following a brief and hazardous landfall that wipes out most of a ship’s crew. In The Temple (1925), Lovecraft’s characters remain at sea during the entire tale, or rather, under it.
Nearly all of Lovecraft’s fiction is autobiographical in content, with the principle characters serving as some representation of the author’s psyche. The Temple is no different in that regard. While it is virtually certain that Lovecraft himself never served as the Lieutenant-Commander of a German U-boat during World War One, the comments he has his character make about other races and social classes are purely Lovecraftian in tone. And, because of the attrition of his crew due to death, suicide or madness, (or all three), the narrator is soon left on his own to confront mysterious and malevolent forces—as in many Lovecraft tales.
The Temple could very well have been renamed The Rime of the Ancient Submariner. Instead of killing the albatross, commander Heinrich torpedoes a British freighter, and then orders the destruction of all the lifeboats fleeing the wreck. He fires on the lifeboats after making a film of them for propaganda purposes. But this incident seals the fate of Heinrich and his crew as well.
Weird things begin to happen. One of the dead who had clung to the railing on deck appears to swim away when released. In one of his pockets is found a small figurine—a youth’s head crowned with laurel—which may be of great antiquity. It seems to act like a bad luck charm. Some of the men become mutinous, while others begin to go mad. Bodies in the water around the ship appear imbued with consciousness, and eye some of the crew members. Large schools of dolphins circle ominously.
An explosion on board kills some of the men and ruins the submarine’s ability to maneuver, although life support systems are preserved for awhile. An unknown current draws the ship deeper and further south. Now, only Heinrich and his fellow officer Klenze are left alive, and Klenze succumbs to madness. Klenze wants Heinrich to join him in a suicidal departure through the hatch on deck. Lovecraft has Klenze say, “Come now—do not wait until later; it is better to repent and be forgiven than to defy and be condemned.”
Heinrich decides to ‘wait until later’. However, he helps send Klenze to his death. The submarine continues to drift south, but the current loses its pull and the ship settles to the bottom. Heinrich has arrived at his destination. Outside the ship are the ruins of an ancient marble temple and other structures. From the temple comes an eerie glow, and Heinrich thinks he sees movement in its depths. He dons a deep-sea diving suit makes one last venture to the entrance of the temple…
Lovecraft does not say what finally becomes of commander Heinrich. Clearly a villain, readers will expect that justice will be done, either through a terrible death by asphyxiation or something worse. But what is really in view here is a religious experience of some sort. This is foreshadowed by his fellow officer’s last words, all the corpses that do not seem actually dead, and his arrival at an ancient underwater temple. His men have converted, will he?
L. Sprague De Camp criticized the story as being mediocre, containing several strange phenomena that fail to cohere into any focused effect, a criticism that S.T. Joshi shares. Joshi wonders why Lovecraft created a satirical, stereotypical German commander in Heinrich, nearly two years after the close of World War I. In my view, satire is not what is intended so much as an expression of Lovecraft’s enthusiasm for Aryan racial beliefs.
As for “too much supernaturalism”—Joshi’s complaint—I feel that these elements are actually well placed in a story that is primarily religious in nature. The Temple is basically a Lovecraftian version of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In Coleridge’s poem, the mariner is eventually saved by an appreciation of God’s work in nature. True to Lovecraft’s enthusiasms, Heinrich may—or may not—be saved by reconnecting with the power of ancient Greek mythology and religion.