Monday, January 4, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Cool Air

Though a quintessential old stock New Englander of his era, H.P. Lovecraft lived in New York City from 1924 to 1926. Initially, he was quite taken with the metropolis – the most populous in the USA at the time, with a population of more than 5 million – and enthused about its skyline, but it did not take long before he soured on the realities of life in a big city. During this time period, he penned five stories that, each in its own way, reflects his growing dissatisfaction with and indeed loathing for New York City (and, by extension, urban existence more generally).

Of these five, I don't think especially highly of most of them. The one exception is "Cool Air," which first appeared in the March 1928 issue of Tales of Magic and Mystery, a fairly obscure periodical that lasted only five issues and is today known today primarily for its connection to Lovecraft. The story's narrator is a writer who

in the spring of 1923 … had secured some dreary and unprofitable magazine work in the city of New York; and being unable to pay any substantial rent, began drifting from one cheap boarding establishment to another in search of a room which might combine the qualities of decent cleanliness, endurable furnishings, and very reasonable price.

It should come as no surprise that the narrator's position is not at all unlike that of Lovecraft himself during his time in the Big Apple, when he found his financial circumstances straitened and accordingly had to move house several times. 

The unnamed narrator eventually finds "a house on West Fourteenth Street which disgusted me much less than the others I had sampled." The narrator keeps mostly to himself, interacting solely with his landlady, Mrs. Herrero, and then only when he must. One evening, he becomes aware of "the pungent odour of ammonia" and, looking about, sees that his "ceiling was wet and dripping; the soaking apparently proceeding from a corner on the side toward the street." Concerned by this, he seeks out Mrs. Herrero, who explains that the apartment above the narrator's is occupied by Dr Muñoz, a reclusive physician, who, she says, is 

vairy queer in hees seeckness – all day he take funnee-smelling baths, and he cannot get excite or warm. All hees own housework he do – hees leetle room are full of bottles and machines, and he do not work as doctair. But he was great once …

Despite being curious about Muñoz's "strange affliction … and whether his obstinate refusal of outside aid were not the result of a rather baseless eccentricity," the narrator tries to return to his humdrum existence. Later, he is struck by a "heart attack" – which I take to be a Lovecraftian exaggeration of his condition – and he seeks out Muñoz. He knocks on his apartment door and, as it opens, is greeted by "a rush of cool air" and his first sight of his upstairs neighbor.

The figure before me was short but exquisitely proportioned, and clad in somewhat formal dress of perfect cut and fit. A high-bred face of masterful though not arrogant expression was adorned by a short iron-grey full beard, and an old-fashioned pince-nez shielded the full, dark eyes and surmounted by an aquiline nose which gave a Moorish touch to a physiognomy otherwise dominantly Celtiberian. Thick, well-trimmed hair that argued the punctual calls of a barber was parted gracefully above a high forehead; and the whole picture was one of striking intelligence and superior blood and breeding.

In brief, the narrator's first impression of Dr Muñoz is one of intense admiration for his breeding, affect, and breeding … and yet: "Nevertheless, as I saw Dr. Muñoz in that blast of cool air, I felt a repugnance which nothing in his aspect could justify." He takes note of the doctor's "the ice-coldness and shakiness of his bloodless-looking hands" and listens as the physician declares himself "the bitterest of sworn enemies to death, and had sunk his fortune and lost all his friends in a lifetime." 

Dr Muñoz is able to help the narrator, all the while "tactfully consoling me about my weak heart by insisting that will and consciousness are stronger than organic life itself," adding somewhat ominously that "if a bodily frame be but originally healthy and carefully preserved, it may through a scientific enhancement of these qualities retain a kind of nervous animation despite the most serious impairments, defects, or even absences in the battery of specific organs." Not long thereafter, Muñoz tells the narrator of his own condition.

For his part, he was afflicted with a complication of maladies requiring a very exact regimen which included constant cold. Any marked rise in temperature might, if prolonged, affect him fatally; and the frigidity of his habitation – some 55 or 56 degrees Fahrenheit – was maintained by an absorption system of ammonia cooling, the gasoline engine of whose pumps I had often heard my own room below.

Needless to say, this exchange between the narrator and his reclusive neighbor lays the groundwork for the revolting events that eventually unfold in the space of this short story. "Cool Air" has nothing to do with the Cthulhu Mythos or cosmic horror; it's a largely "personal" story and, in my opinion, is better for it. The stakes are low and its consequences are small and I think that's why I like it so much. Compared to more well-known and celebrated tales, "Cool Air" is easy to overlook and under-value, but it's quite an effective example of pulpy, Grand Guignol-style horror. I remember the first time I read it as a younger person and, like "The Tomb," it remains a favorite of mine. If you're only familiar with HPL's more "highfalutin" stories, give this one a read; you might be surprised at how much you enjoy it.


  1. FYI, the story was adapted to an episode of THE NIGHT GALLERY in 1971.

  2. Thinking about it, I agree with you that "Cool Air" is the best of Lovecraft's 'Pest Zone' stories, though I am fond of both "He", for its sorcerer antagonist who I find rather compelling, and "The Shunned House", which, despite its flaws, is an interesting haunted house story and a great model for a CoC scenario. "Cool Air" is very successful with its atmosphere of mounting dread and Lovecraft was not afraid of going for the gross out when he thought it appropriate. I don't think "Cool Air" a first-tier story, but it is definitely high on the second-tier of Lovecraft's oeuvre and worth taking the time to read.

    1. "The Shunned House" is the other of his New York-written tales that I like, mostly for its intimations of cosmic horror, which, while under-developed, raises it above the level of being a mere haunted house story.

    2. I like "Cool Air," but it's marred a bit for me by its taking too much from Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar."

    3. They are both such amazing stories though. But I guess I think there’s just a lot of area to be explored in the “living, rotting corpses” domain XD

  3. Leave it to Lovecraft to pen a story about the horrors of air conditioned apartments.