Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories.
Today we’re looking at “Cool Air,” written in March 1926 and first published in the March 1928 issue of Tales of Magic and Mystery. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.
“He sought to distract my mind from my own seizure by speaking of his theories and experiments; and I remember his tactfully consoling me about my weak heart by insisting that will and consciousness are stronger than organic life itself, so 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. He might, he half jestingly said, some day teach me to live—or at least to possess some kind of conscious existence—without any heart at all!”
Summary: The unnamed narrator addresses an unnamed associate. He means to explain why any draft of cold air troubles him like a noxious smell, to the point of shivering and nausea.
In 1923, he was doing little profitable magazine work in New York City. After living in a succession of cheap rooms, he finds one in a brownstone of tarnished grandeur but where the floors are clean and the hot water seldom runs cold. The other tenants may be Spaniards, but they’re above the “coarsest and crudest grade” and are mercifully uncommunicative. He can “hibernate” here until he can “really live again.”
One day ammonia drips into his room from the floor above. The landlady informs him that Dr. Munoz must have spilled chemicals. He is ill but insists on doctoring himself—well, maybe no one better fit for the job, as he was a famous physician once, back in Barcelona. His disease is odd, for it requires him to avoid excitement and heat. He keeps his rooms practically refrigerated, hence the chemicals and the machine noise the narrator has heard from above.
The narrator reflects on the pathos of greatness reduced, then thinks little more of Dr. Munoz until a sudden heart attack drives him upstairs to seek aid from the recluse. He’s surprised by the rich decor, more suitable to a gentleman’s study than a squalid boarding house, but the sumptuous furnishings suit the doctor whose formal dress, distinguished appearance and masterful expression bespeak his intelligence and high breeding. Too bad his complexion is so livid, his hands so icy, his voice so hollow, as to inspire instinctive repugnance. But Munoz’s great skill and kindness win the narrator over. In turn, Munoz seems grateful to have an educated visitor to whom he can speak of his singular theories on the power of will and artificial preservation to stave off organic dissolution.
The narrator often returns to Munoz’s chilly rooms in an overcoat. He receives both continued treatment for his weak heart and rich fodder for speculation. Munoz is so unconventional a physician he doesn’t scorn even the incantations of the medievalists, which he believes can provide psychological stimulus to a failing nervous system, even if organic “pulsations” have deserted it. Old Dr. Torres shared his own extraordinary researches with Munoz and pulled him through a terrible illness eighteen years before, only to succumb himself from the strain.
Sadly Munoz grow increasingly ill and capricious, perfuming his rooms with exotic spices and reducing the temperature to below freezing. The narrator supplies him with his food and chemical needs, but the deterioration continues even as Munoz’s will and drive seem to wax for a final struggle. He only laughs at gentle suggestions about funeral arrangements.
One night the pump of Munoz’s refrigeration apparatus breaks. The narrator can’t fix it, and Munoz grows increasingly agitated. He claps hands over his eyes, retreats from sight, returns with face tightly bandaged. Soon afterwards he plunges himself into frigid bathwater, for which the narrator must continually fetch ice. As day breaks, he hires a loafer to do the ice-fetching, while he goes in search of parts and mechanics.
It’s afternoon before he secures them. When he returns to the boarding house, he finds it in an uproar. The loafer has fled screaming, apparently after getting too curious about what was happening in Munoz’s bathroom. The smell from the doctor’s apartment is hideous, and only a slow thickish dripping can be heard inside.
The landlady contrives to pick the lock. She, the narrator, and his mechanics enter, to find a slimy trail from bathroom to hall door to desk, where the slime-dripper paused long enough to leave a whole pool while it scrawled a note. Then it dripped over to the couch and collapsed there, into a residue the narrator dares not describe.
He burns the note, but not before making out a smeared confession: Munoz’s theory about will and nerves was good, but there was a gradual deterioration he hadn’t foreseen. Dr. Torres knew. The shock killed him, for he’d had to get Munoz from “a strange, dark place” in order to nurse him back. Yet the organs never would work again, and artificial preservation had been necessary.
Because, you see, Munoz died that time, eighteen years before.
What’s Cyclopean: “Cool Air” is pretty light on the adjectives, maybe because New York lacks gambrel roofs and the narrator’s brownstone isn’t really large enough to draw on “cyclopean” and its related descriptors.
The Degenerate Dutch: While it’s not the focus of the story, “Cool Air” tells us more than we really wanted to know about Lovecraft’s opinions on New York immigrants. Also, he should still not be allowed to try and spell out dialect.
Mythos Making: If this fits into the larger Mythos continuity, then Munoz is quite right that “will and consciousness are stronger than organic life itself.” Pity he doesn’t have a Yith to talk over his theories with—but probably a good thing he never meets Joseph Curwen. One wonders whether they use some of the same cryptic medieval formulae.
Libronomicon: Munoz’s research requires an array of “unconventional and astonishingly ancient” books, but the narrator shares no details.
Madness Takes Its Toll: There’s some fleeing in panic at the end there, but Munoz and the narrator both do pretty well when it actually makes a difference.
Our nameless narrator of the week shares several traits with his author: unusual sensitivity to cold, ill-paid work in the lit biz, the pathos of gentility fallen on hard times, and a deep antipathy to New York boarding houses and the city’s cornucopia of immigrants. He merely hibernates in unfamiliar and uncongenial surroundings, not truly alive until his interest is piqued by the mystery of his upstairs neighbor who is literally not alive, though he manages a reasonable semblance of vitality, especially on the intellectual level.
Here’s another tale about immortality and the perils of aspiring to it, medical science division. “Herbert West, Reanimator” is its more lurid predecessor; later we’ll meet the Yuggoth fungi, whose medical skill has achieved immortality for brains and possibly for their “shells” as well. Its apparent sources are Poe’s “Ligeia”—she of the adamantine will—and “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” in which a man is preserved between life and death via mesmerism until, awakened from the trance, he dissolves into “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putrescence.” Lovecraft himself claims that his inspiration was Arthur Machen’s “The Novel of the White Powder,” whose central character ends up “a dark and putrid mass, seething with corruption and hideous rottenness, neither liquid nor solid, but melting and changing before our eyes, and bubbling with unctuous oily bubbles like boiling pitch.” Machen’s character wasn’t trying to be immortal, however, just to buck up from over-study of the law. Unfortunately, the stimulant powder he’s prescribed has sat on the shelf so long it’s somehow deteriorated into the chief ingredient of the witches’ Vinum Sabbati or Sabbath Wine. Oops. Gotta watch those expiration dates.
“Cool Air” has a structural twin in “Pickman’s Model,” written about six months later. Both stories are extended explanations of a personal phobia, by a first person narrator to a friend or acquaintance. They are very different in tone, however, the first reading like a much-considered written account, the second like an actual monologue in an idiosyncratic voice, so raw with remembered and lingering fear that it’s nearly hysterical. But more on Pickman another time, and like his model I slaver in exquisite anticipation.
In comparison to its “twin,” “Cool Air” is cool, straightforward, almost clinical, and it shies away from its culminating ickiness as neither Poe nor Machen do, though the slime trails that hint at the horror are pretty effective. There’s also that little matter of Dr. Munoz clutching at his eyes and running off to bandage them out of sight. This looks like a reference to “M. Valdemar,” whose eyes are said to exude “a profuse outflowing of a yellowish ichor.” On the whole, however, “Cool Air” is all but priggish in its horrors, all hints and allusions. On a related note—and an unusual occurrence—the narrator doesn’t even reel off the names of those “astonishingly ancient” tomes in Dr. Munoz’s library. Some suspense builds near the end, as the narrator suffers through one of those mad scrambles for parts and mechanics that many of us have faced in domestic life. My own most memorable ordeal was getting a furnace repaired minutes before the biggest blizzard of the decade hit. Yeah, talk about scary. Especially if, like the narrator, you have to do it in a strange city you don’t much like in the first place, to the nerve-grating din of streetcars and in unseasonable October heat.
That bit rings so true. Also unnerving for me is the way Munoz laughs at the mention of funerals and burial. His mentor Dr. Torres had to rescue him from “a strange, dark place” which can only have been the grave, but in another example of the reticence of this tale, Munoz doesn’t go there. Perhaps he can’t quite remember. Perhaps he can’t bear to. He’s a cool character in two senses of the word: chilly and awesome. What an intellect! What a mastery of his profession! What a situation he finds himself in, yet he’s still capable of compassion, at least until he must throw all his formidable will into maintaining his artificial reanimation. He’s one of the more sympathetic mad scientists in fantastic literature. I fear it pained him to slime all over Mrs. Herrero’s floors, which she kept remarkably clean.
Plus, unlike most revived corpses, he never lumbers and lurches, but has a step so quiet the narrator never hears him walking overhead. This is a great virtue in an apartment dweller, as Lovecraft doubtless learned during his New York exile. I wonder if he mentions it so that Munoz will score points with us readers (and communal dwellers), even before we meet the good and brilliant doctor.
Munoz does drip later on, slowly and thickly. That could get a bit annoying….
Cool Air suffers from what, for the sake of having something to call it, I’m going to call a “hollow Frankenstein” problem. That is to say, it uses the trappings of “unnatural experiments” and “playing god” and the assumed horror of half-defying death, without actually doing the in-story work required to make those things horrible. We’re leaving aside here, for the moment, that none of this was actually the horror in Shelley’s masterpiece, where the entire tragedy stemmed from Frankenstein’s failure to properly care for his newborn monster.
Or maybe we won’t leave it aside, because for me, what makes this story interesting in spite of itself, and also keeps it from being the kind of horror Lovecraft was going for, is that the narrator is actually a pretty good caretaker. He looks in on his neighbor after no one else will, brings him all that he needs even when it’s physically uncomfortable, and listens to his theories even while holding their implications at bay through sheer force of denial. It’s only after Munoz is beyond his help that he flips out. If he invoked the force of life into an assemblage of lifeless body parts, he’d probably stick around to love the creature and guide it to a fully civilized—if alarming to the neighbors—adulthood. That, I’ve gotta respect.
After which, the HE WAS DEAD ALL ALONG ‘revelation’ at the end falls a little flat. But there’s still horror to be found here. Munoz’s plight—stuck in a failing body, barely able to go out or practice his beloved profession, knowing himself utterly dependent on imperfect technology—is a pretty scary one, that can become all too real even (or especially) for the living.
(By the way, air conditioning was first installed in a private home in North Carolina in 1933—the techniques existed in factories at the time the story was written, but both Lovecraft and Munoz are ahead of their time here and no wonder the thing’s prone to breaking down.)
As a materialist, Lovecraft can’t, or shouldn’t, have counted on the usual knee-jerk reactions against the undead: risk to Munoz’s immortal soul, the hubris of denying god’s will, the belief that something essentially human flees with death even if the body continues on. His desired effect is therefore entirely dependent on the assumption that “the abnormal always excites aversion, distrust, and fear.” If you don’t share that inherent repugnance, then Munoz’s techniques, and the extra research time he’s bought for himself, seem like… maybe a bad trade-off in terms of quality of life, but hardly an inherent abomination.
Reading between the lines and with an awareness of the author’s biography, I do wonder if this is another story where the real horror is intended to be not any one violation of natural law, but New York itself. It’s no coincidence that Munoz’s rooms are by the narrator’s lights, in spite of their temperature, the most familiar and civilized-seeming place in the building. In the vast and impersonally overwhelming city, even the seemingly friendliest face may conceal dread truths. You can never really know who—and what—your neighbors are.
Especially not these days, when so many buildings set their summer temperature oddly… low… for the comfort of ordinary living human beings. Huh.
Next week, journey “Under the Pyramids” …with Harry Houdini.
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.