For the first time in his career so far, Lovecraft delivers a story that reaches the staggering length of ten pages. We’ll probably need a single full blog post to dedicate to this one.
Our protagonist is the commander of a German U-boat during WW1, and he’s leaving this document in a bottle in hopes that it will reach the surface, for he does not expect to survive his current predicament. After torpedoing a British ship, they find a sailor’s corpse in the wreckage and guess that he is Italian or Greek and in possession of an ivory carving of a laurel-crowned young man’s head. I assume this will be relevant to the plot, otherwise our protagonist is just letting us know that the sailors under his command engage in looting corpses for no other reason except, presumably, to make sure the audience knows that the Germans are meant to be the villains of WW1. The corpse takes it pretty well.
The Boatswain Müller, an elderly man who would have known better had he not been a superstitious Alsatian swine, became so excited by this impression that he watched the body in the water; and swore that after it sank a little it drew its limbs into a swimming position and sped away to the south under the waves. Klenze and I did not like these displays of peasant ignorance, and severely reprimanded the men, particularly Müller.
The weird thing is that I’m 70% sure this is supposed to paint our German protagonist in a bad light. The “Alsatian swine” is totally correct, after all, and our hero’s unwillingness to entertain superstition is probably what’s about to lead to his sub getting wrecked. But Lovecraft just wrote the Street like three or four months before this story. Is he really so lacking in self-awareness as to try and characterize a villain using petty racism while engaging in near-identical petty racism himself? I can imagine someone who would agree, if you presented it to them, that racism against Alsatians is dumb but racism against Portugese is totally fine, but Lovecraft seems like he’s actually bringing up of his own volition a criticism of how petty some German (Prussian, probably?) officer’s racism against Alsace is.
The crew are haunted by nightmares of the drowned dead coming for revenge, and the sub commander is too thick to toss the ivory carving that is clearly responsible. Even assuming we absolutely ignore any potential supernatural cause to the nightmares, clearly chucking this thing would be good for morale, and it’s not exactly hard to throw something into the ocean. They’re surfacing regularly, partly because WW1-era submarines have to, but also we know they are because (and I’m getting slightly ahead of myself to say this, but) two of the crew eventually kill themselves by jumping overboard. We wouldn’t have a story if the commander behaved at all sensibly, though, so stubborn refusal to display any hint of believing in superstition it is.
On June 20, Seamen Bohm and Schmidt, who had been ill the day before, became violently insane. I regretted that no physician was included in our complement of officers, since German lives are precious;
Erich von Falkenhayne didn’t seem to agree with this assessment, if Verdun is anything to go by. Regrets or no, our hero executes the two. This is followed shortly by the two aforementioned suicides.
The engine mysteriously explodes, and the u-boat is now unable to move except to surface or submerge. A neat trick for avoiding enemies, but they’re in the middle of the Atlantic, they’ve only got so many supplies, and they have no way now to return home.
To seek rescue in the lifeboats would be to deliver ourselves into the hands of enemies unreasonably embittered against our great German nation,
‘Course, that dead Italian/Greek fellow from the beginning of the story came from British lifeboats they slaughtered, so clearly we’re not supposed to like this German sub commander. Plus, the reaction to practically every action that displeases the commander – whether advocating surrender after the submarine is utterly crippled or just being crazy – is execution. Eventually, there’s a mutiny, and the commander kills all of his remaining crew except his second-in-command, who then begins to go crazy as the sub is borne southward by some mysterious current not accounted for by the charts. Also they’re constantly surrounded by dolphins, even at depths where dolphins do not normally go, where the sub is eventually brought, its ability to surface having gotten damaged somewhere along the way. Eventually, the second-in-command commits suicide as well, leaving the sub to drown himself in the ocean.
And apparently the sub is drifting towards Atlantis:
I am not given to emotion of any kind, but my amazement was very great when I saw what lay revealed in that electrical glow. And yet as one reared in the best Kultur of Prussia I should not have been amazed, for geology and tradition alike tell us of great transpositions in oceanic and continental areas. What I saw was an extended and elaborate array of ruined edifices; all of magnificent though unclassified architecture, and in various stages of preservation. Most appeared to be of marble, gleaming whitely in the rays of the searchlight, and the general plan was of a large city at the bottom of a narrow valley, with numerous isolated temples and villas on the steep slopes above. Roofs were fallen and columns were broken, but there still remained an air of immemorially ancient splendour which nothing could efface.
The u-boat finally hits the ocean floor here in the ruined city, right in front of the massive, eponymous temple, dedicated to some sun god, who our hero eventually realizes is the same god whose image was carved into the ivory pendant that started all the trouble. He has a deep-sea diving suit, you know the one, the one that steampunk protagonists use to explore the ocean, which he uses to explore the ruins, but his lights die from lack of power before he can get too far.
Our hero insists that he only believes in rational scientific things even as he finally begins to acknowledge that his situation is blatantly supernatural, once he returns to the u-boat only to find that the temple is now lit up and hymns can be heard chanting within despite the u-boat being pretty thoroughly soundproof. He insists these must be hallucinations, but nevertheless decides to don his diving suit, venture into the darkness of the temple, and there die of suffocation when his oxygen runs out, insisting that he is a Prussian (he confirms he’s Prussian, and also derides the reason and will of Rhinelanders a couple of times) and therefore does not believe in the supernatural no matter how overwhelming the evidence laid at his feet. This, naturally, is where the story ends, its framing device of a message in a bottle demanding that the story cease after the message is shoved in the bottle. Whatever the u-boat commander found in that temple, it probably wasn’t a good thing, and probably wasn’t hallucinatory.