“Cool Air“

   Short story (3,440 words); written probably in February 1926. First published in Tales of Magic and Mystery(March 1928); rpt. WT(September 1939); first collected in O;corrected text in DH; annotated version in An2and CC
   The narrator, having “secured some dreary and unprofitable magazine work” in the spring of 1923, finds himself in a run-down boarding-house whose landlady is a “slatternly, almost bearded Spanish woman named Herrero” and occupied generally by low-life except for one Dr. Munoz, a cultivated and intelligent retired medical man who is continually experimenting with chemicals and indulges in the eccentricity of keeping his room at a temperature of about 55° by means of an ammonia cooling system. Munoz suffers from the effects of a horrible malady that struck him eighteen years ago. He is obliged to keep his room increasingly cooler, as low as 28°. When, in the heat of summer, his ammonia cooling system fails, the narrator undertakes a frantic effort to fix it, enlisting “a seedy-looking loafer” to keep the doctor supplied with the ice that he repeatedly demands in ever larger amounts. But it is to no avail: when the narrator returns from his quest for air-conditioner repairmen, he finds the boarding-house in turmoil; the loafer, faced with some nameless horror, had quickly abandoned his task of supplying ice. When the narrator enters Munoz’s room, he sees a “kind of dark, slimy trail [that] led from the open bathroom to the hall door” and “ended unutterably.” In fact, Munoz died eighteen years before and had kept himself functioning by artificial preservation.
   There are several autobiographical touches in the story. The setting is the brownstone at 317 West 14th Street (between Eighth and Ninth Avenues) in Manhattan, occupied in August–October 1925 by George Kirk, both as a residence and as the site of his Chelsea Book Shop. HPL describes it in a letter: “It is a typical Victorian home of New York’s ‘Age of Innocence’, with tiled hall, carved marble mantels, vast pier glasses & mantel mirrors with massive gilt frames, incredibly high ceilings covered with stucco ornamentation, round arched doorways with elaborate rococo pediments, & all the other earmarks of New York’s age of vast wealth & impossible taste. Kirk’s rooms are the great groundfloor parlours, connected by an open arch, & having windows only in the front room. These two windows open to the south on 14th St., & have the disadvantage of admitting all the babel & clangour of that great crosstown thoroughfare with its teeming traffick & ceaseless street-cars” (HPL to Lillian D. Clark, August 19–23, 1925; ms., JHL). Dr. Munoz may have been suggested by HPL’s neighbor across the street, “the fairly celebrated Dr. Love, State Senator and sponsor of the famous ‘Clean Books bill’ at Albany…evidently immune or unconscious of the decay” (HPL to B.A.Dwyer, March 26, 1927; AHT). Even the ammonia cooling system has an autobiographical source. In August 1925 HPL’s aunt Lillian had told him of a visit to a theatre in Providence, to which he replied: “Glad you have kept up with the Albee Co., though surprised to hear that the theatre is hot. They have a fine ammonia cooling system installed, & if they do not use it it can only be through a niggardly sense of economy” (HPL to Lillian D.Clark, August 7, 1925; ms., JHL).
   HPL stated that the inspiration for the tale was not, as one might expect, Poe’s “Facts in the Case of M.Valdemar” but Machen’s “Novel of the White Powder” (HPL to Henry Kuttner, July 29, 1936; Letters to Henry Kuttner[Necronomicon Press, 1990], p. 21), in which a hapless student unwittingly takes a drug that reduces him to “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.”
   WT rejected “Cool Air” in March 1926, possibly because its gruesome conclusion would invite censorship, as in the case of “The Loved Dead.” It was one of eight stories that HPL submitted in late 1927 to the poor paying and shortlived Tales of Magic and Mystery;HPL received $18.50 for it.
   See Bert Atsma, “Living on Borrowed Time: A Biologist Looks at ‘M.Valdemar’ and ‘Cool Air,’” Crypt No. 4 (Eastertide 1981): 11–13; Will Murray, “A Note on ‘Cool Air,’” Crypt No. 28 (Yuletide 1984): 20–21.

An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. .

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