||"The moribund hermit's rage and fear, swelling to grotesque proportions, seemed likely to shatter what remained of his failing physique; and once a spasm caused him to clap his hands to his eyes and rush into the bathroom. He groped his way out with face tightly bandaged, and I never saw his eyes again."
Rating: Four shoggoths out of five
Nutshell: A gentleman in New York begins renting an apartment one floor below an aged doctor, who insists on keeping his quarters very chilly. As the two become friends, the old doctor's health begins to deteriorate in a particularly Lovecraftian fashion.
Setting: New York City
Commentary: This tale is a great, quick read, although the ending is not that much of a surprise. The characters are more developed here than in many Lovecraft stories, which is all the more impressive when the tale's brevity is taken into account. Lovecraft's significant talents in pacing are also showcased here; he is particularly good here at making the story move along swiftly while not sacrificing his eloquent descriptions.
History, Esoterica, and Factoids: "Cool Air" was written in March 1926 and rejected for unknown reasons from Weird Tales magazine. It first appeared in print in March 1928 in Tales of Magic and Mystery, a pulp magazine that died after only five issues.
The theme of cold air was tremendously personal to Lovecraft, as he was very sensitive to cold. He often complained about its effects in his letters. He could not tolerate temperatures beneath 20 degrees Fahrenheit, claiming nausea, heart problems, and difficulty breathing, and would lose conciousness at any state below 15 degrees Fahrenheit. (Details can be found in a 1932 letter Lovecraft wrote to friend Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, who committed suicide four years later.) These symptoms are obviously quite extreme, and are likely linked to an undiagnozed medical problem. Since Lovecraft was almost notorious for his lack of good nutrition (he once commented he often spent less than $3 per day on food), it is likely a metabolic problem (such as hypometabolism, hypothyroidism or even anorexia) caused him to be so intolerant to cold. In fact, he seemed to be plagued with various intestinal and metabolic conditions, up to the day he passed away from intestinal cancer in 1937.
Other details of "Cool Air" also denote Lovecraft's personal attachment to this tale. The "house on West Fourteenth Street" is a reference to 317 W. 14th Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City (on Staten Island), where Lovecraft's friend George Kirk lived in 1925. The brownstone building is still there today, housing the Chelsea Pines Inn, a small gay/lesbian oriented bed-and-breakfast with 23 rooms. Each room is named for a movie star and whimsically decorated. The phone number 212-929-1023, if you're interested in staying there.
Lovecraft himself lived in Brooklyn, New York, from 1924 to 1926, and set several tales there, including "The Horror at Red Hook" as well as "Cool Air". Most of these tales tend to be misanthropic, especially towards the minorities that Lovecraft seemed to have a particular distaste for (he tended towards a very un-PC Aryan ideal). This is seen in his discription of the Hispanics in "Cool Air". It is not surprising that he did not seem to care much for New York City, given his ideals: the Chelsea neighborhood at the time had a large Hispanic population, and also housed several tobacco factories run by Latin Americans. For a very long period, it was a working class community; only recently has it become a posh area for the gay community, featuring many night clubs and bars.
"Sal-ammoniac" refers to the compound ammonium chloride (NH4Cl). It forms on volcanic rocks near fume vents, as well as near burning coal seams. There is absolutely no liquid phase; the mineral sublimates directly from gaseous to solid form. It is highly soluble in water, and thus naturally occuring crystals are very difficult to fund unless collected immediately after formation. The fumes of ammonium chloride are often used in these modern times to coat dark objects that need to be photographed; the crystals bring out details and contrast. It is also used in batteries. The compound was originally discovered by Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan, an 8th century Arabian alchemist. The name "sal-ammoniac" literally means "salt of Amon", refering to the Egyptian god Amen.
When the young protagonist of "Cool Air" suffers a heart attack near the beginning of the tale, Lovecraft may well have been referring to his close friend, Frank Belknap Long (1901-1994), whose undergraduate ambitions were cut short by a heart attack and had to be very cautious with his health from then on.
The reference to "Moorish touch" and "Celtiberian" refers to the people of the Iberian Peninsula, which houses Spain and Portugal. Anyone who has studied the history of the area knows that just about everybody, their mother, and their pets, launched a conquest upon Spain at one point or another in history, beginning with the Phoenecians in 1,100 BC. Around 1000 BC, the Celts moved in from the North across the Pyrenees. In 7th century BC, the Greeks marching in to found several cities. Rome annexed Spain around 200 BC. By the time 586 AD rolls around, the Visigoths have stomped through and ended Roman rule. In 712, Muslim troops took over. By 1492, Spain had fallen to the Catholics during the Reconquest. Later, Napoleon took it over, Hitler bombed it, and civil wars ripped it apart repeatedly. Anyone who has visited Spain will easily notice that each of these diverse cultures have placed a distinct influence on its arts and architecture, making it a truly unique country of astonishing beauty despite approximately 3000 years of bloody conquests.
"Cool Air" re-visits the Frankenstein theme of the reanimation of dead tissue, which Lovecraft had used extensively six years earlier in "Herbert West -- Re-Animator".
The primitive air-conditioning system that Lovecraft devised for Dr. Munoz's apartment is really quite interesting, especially since it pre-dates personal air conditioning systems by several years. Commercial refrigeration had only been conceived in 1902 and was only in use in factories by the time Lovecraft wrote this tale. It wasn't until a year later, in 1927, that General Electric produced the first mechanical refrigerator, which was available for the then-exhorbitant price of $525 for a 14 cubic foot model. Frigidaire produced the first individual room cooler in 1929 using similar technology. Lovecraft's technical details about the system are dead-on. In an absorbant system, ammonia is used to cool brine, which is then pumped through pipes in the area to be cooled. The pump is necessary for the pressurization to convert gaseous ammonia into a liquid. Coinciding with the publication date of "Cool Air", Thomas Midgley, Jr.'s (American, 1889-1944) discovery of halocarbon refrigerants in 1928 provided a safer alternative to ammonia in refrigeration systems (the ammonia tended to leak out and kill people). Midgley later dicovered chlorofluorocarbons in the 1930's, which replaced the halocarbons.
"Galens" refers to the Greek physician Galen (circa 130-210 AD), who served Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. In year 191, a fire destroyed much of Galen's work, but the remainder reveals his reputation as one of the most prolific, influential, and cantankerous ancient physicians in history. His writings encompass nearly every aspect of medical theory and practice of his time. He liked to argue that medicine could have the same epistemological certainty and intellectual status that philosophy enjoyed, and he often wrote treatises on both. His writings served as primary medical texts as late as 1833.
The Valley of the Kings refers to the region named Wadi Biban el-Muluk in Arabic, which lies behind the Theban Hills on the banks of the Nile in Egypt (lat. 25° 44' N, long. 32° 36' E). It houses over 60 tombs from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, including the famed tomb of Tutankhamen (KV62), which was unearthed in 1922 by Howard Carter (English, 1874-1939). There are actually two valleys, one on each bank of the river. The East Valley is most visited by tourists, but the West Valley is larger, though it only houses two royal tombs. An absolutely incredible web site about the Valley of the Kings and its excavation can be found here, at the Theban Mapping Project web site.
At the time Lovecraft wrote "Cool Air", all things Egyptian were very much in vogue, and thus their frequent mention here. The tomb of Tutankhamen had been discovered only a few years previous, and the art of Egypt enjoyed a revival of a sorts because of it. The Art Deco movement was firmly underway by 1925, and essentialy modernized images from Egyptian, Far Eastern, and classical art (examples include the Chrysler Building in New York City and the works of Erte). In 1924, Lovecraft had also teamed up with Harry Houdini to write "Under the Pyramids", which is set in Egypt.
The "Great War" referred to in the tale is World War I.
It is interesting to note that many of Lovecraft's characters document their demise to the extreme (an almost silly example is evidenced in "Dagon"), and Dr. Munoz is no exception. See also "The Thing on the Doorstep".
Film/Television: "Cool Air" has actually made it to the big and small screens twice.
The film Necronomicon (1994) is an anthology of three tales that features venerable B-movie actor Jeffrey Combs as Lovecraft himself. One sequence is based on "Cool Air"; the other two are loosely (I mean loosely in the extreme) based on "The Rats in the Walls" and "The Whisperer in the Darkness". Overall, the film is poorly made and barely entertaining, but it is kind of fun to watch Jeffrey Combs in a prosthetic chin. The "Cool Air" segment is probably the best (though that isn't saying much). It features the great David Warner as Dr. Munoz (inexplicably changed to Dr. Madden). The protagonist's part was changed from male to female in an attempt to build a romantic edge (bad idea, as per usual). The whole segment is directed by Japanese director Shusuke Kaneko, who has since turned to directing Godzilla, Mothra and Gamera movies. No, I'm not kidding.
Rod Serling's Night Gallery on NBC also included an adaptation of "Cool Air" in Episode 18. Once again, the protagonist's part is changed from male to female (What's with these people? It just doesn't work!). It's actually not that bad, but the ending fizzles. The episode first aired on December 8th, 1971.
Availability: "Cool Air" can be found both in More Annotated H. P. Lovecraft (S.T. Joshi and Peter Cannon, eds.) and in The Road to Madness. More Annotated Lovecraft provides full footnotes, but Road to Madness contains more stories.
Cover art for the March 1928 issue of Tales of Magic and Mystery, in which "Cool Air" first appeared.
Former home to bookseller George Kirk (1898-1962). Current site of the Chelsea Pines Inn.
Former home to bookseller George Kirk (1898-1962).
Current site of the Chelsea Pines Inn.
Entrance to the Tomb of Ramses XI (20th Dynasty)
Site KV4, Valley of the Kings, Egypt
Chrysler Building, 1930
405 Lexington Avenue
Example of the Art Deco movement
Example of the Art Deco movement
Painting from Night Gallery, episode 18, which aired on NBC on December 8, 1971, and featured a segment based on "Cool Air".