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|Author||H. P. Lovecraft|
|Genre(s)||Horror short story|
|Published in||Tales of Magic and Mystery|
|Media type||Print (magazine)|
|Publication date||March 1928|
The narrator offers a story to explain why a "draught of cool air" is the most detestable thing to him. His tale begins in the spring of 1923, when he was looking for housing in New York City. He finally settles in a converted brownstone on West Fourteenth Street. Investigating a chemical leak from the floor above, he discovers that the inhabitant directly overhead is a strange, old, and reclusive physician. One day the narrator suffers a heart attack, and remembering that a doctor lives overhead, he climbs the stairs and meets Dr. Muñoz for the first time.
The doctor demonstrates supreme medical skill, and saves the narrator with a combination of medications. The fascinated narrator returns regularly to sit and learn from the doctor. As their talks continue, it becomes increasingly evident that the doctor has an obsession with defying death through all available means.
The doctor's room is kept at approximately 56 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius) using an ammonia-based refrigeration system; the pumps are driven by a gasoline engine. As time goes on, the doctor's health declines and his behaviour becomes increasingly eccentric. The cooling system is continuously upgraded, to the point where some areas of his rooms are sub-freezing, until one night when the pump breaks down.
Without explanation, the panic-stricken doctor frantically implores his friend to help him keep his body cool. Unable to repair the machine until morning, they resort to having the doctor stay in a tub full of ice. The narrator spends his time replenishing the ice, but soon is forced to employ someone else to do it. When he finally locates competent mechanics to repair the pump, it is too late.
He arrives at the apartment in time to see the rapidly decomposing remains of the doctor, and a rushed, "hideously smeared" letter. The narrator reads it; to his horror, he learns that Dr. Muñoz died 18 years previously. Refusing to surrender to death, he maintained the semblance of life past the point of death using various methods, depending upon refrigeration to retard decomposition.
Lovecraft wrote "Cool Air" during his unhappy stay in New York City, during which he wrote three horror stories with a New York setting. In "Lovecraft's New York Exile," David E. Schultz cites the contrast Lovecraft felt between his apartment, crammed with relics of his beloved New England, and the immigrant neighborhood of Red Hook in which he lived as an inspiration for the "unsettling juxtaposition of opposites" that characterizes the short story. Like the story's main character, Shultz suggests, Lovecraft, cut off from his native Providence, Rhode Island, felt himself to be just going through the motions of life.
The building that is the story's main setting is based on a townhouse at 317 West 14th Street where George Kirk, one of Lovecraft's few New York friends, lived briefly in 1925. The narrator's heart attack recalls that of another New York Lovecraft friend, Frank Belknap Long, who dropped out of New York University because of his heart condition. The narrator's phobia about cool air is reminiscent of Lovecraft himself, who was abnormally sensitive to cold.
Schultz indicates that "Cool Air"'s main literary source is Edgar Allan Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", described as Lovecraft's favourite Poe story after "The Fall of the House of Usher". Lovecraft had just finished the Poe chapter of his survey "Supernatural Horror in Literature" at the time that he wrote the short story. Lovecraft, however, stated years later that the story that inspired "Cool Air" was Arthur Machen's "The Novel of the White Powder", another tale of bodily disintegration.
Submitted to Lovecraft's regular outlet, the pulp magazine Weird Tales, "Cool Air" was rejected by editor Farnsworth Wright, a decision that has been called "inexplicable...since it would appear to be just the sort of safe, macabre tale that he liked." It's possible that Wright feared that "its gruesome conclusion would invite censorship". Peter Cannon calls "Cool Air" Lovecraft's "best story with a New York setting", proving him "capable of using an understated, naturalistic style to powerful effect."
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