Short Story Saturday: “Cool Air”

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I’m kind of surprised that it’s taken me this long to talk about a story by H. P. Lovecraft, given my internet handle, but here we are. Today, I’m going to take a look at Lovecraft’s 1926 story, “Cool Air.”

So our tale begins with an unnamed narrator telling an equally unnamed person why he can’t stand cold breezes. It all started when our narrator, a down-on-his-luck writer, moved into a cheap apartment building. An apartment building which, to his horror, is filled with immigrants.

Did I mention that our good friend Howard was intensely xenophobic?

Anyway, one day the narrator is chilling (pun not intended) in his apartment, when ammonia starts dripping from his ceiling. He goes to report this issue to his landlady, Mrs. Herrero, who tells him that his upstairs neighbor, one Dr. Muñoz, must have spilled some of the chemicals he was working with. She also indicates that he has some vague illness, which requires him to keep cool at all times.

Some days later, the narrator suffers a heart attack. Thankfully, there is a doctor in the house, and he goes to get medical attention from his neighbor. The first thing he notices, of course, is that the room is fairly cold, about 55 degrees. The second thing he notices is that Muñoz doesn’t seem to stop for breath when he talks. Remember this detail, because it becomes important later.

Anyway, the narrator stays for a time after the attack has passed, and Muñoz shows him his fancy air conditioning setup, which is what’s keeping the room at its current temperature.

Despite his eccentricities, the narrator finds himself quite liking Muñoz, and starts to visit him on a regular basis.  Over the course of these visits, the narrator notes that Muñoz’s appearance and health are deteriorating, and that he’s been lowering the temperature in his room.

And then one day the AC system breaks down in the middle of the night.

Muñoz, distraught, runs to the bathroom and begs the narrator to get as much ice as he possibly can, to keep him cooled down until the system can be repaired. He does so, but it’s not enough, so he has to get more.

The night goes on, and the narrator enlists the aid of a homeless person to keep the ice coming so he can track down the part needed to fix the AC, since the shops were open at this point. It takes him a while, but he manages to find the part and runs back to the apartment, which is currently a scene of total chaos.

See, it turns out that the homeless guy’s curiosity got the better of him, so he opened the bathroom door to take a look. And immediately ran away screaming, which alerted the building’s other residents.

It turns out that the door to Muñoz’s apartment is locked from the inside, so the narrator enlists the aid of a couple workmen to break it down, And then immediately wishes he hadn’t, because there’s a trail of slime leading to something unspeakable on the couch.

In case it isn’t clear, the something unspeakable is, in fact, Dr. Muñoz, or at least what’s left of him.

The narrator then finds a letter written by Muñoz, which explains that he’s actually been dead for 18 years, meaning that the reason he had to keep everything so cold was to keep him from literally decaying. Surprise!

Now, my first thought here is that Lovecraft is trying so, so hard to sound like Edgar Allan Poe, which is pretty much true of his writing style in general. It’s not a secret that Lovecraft was a Poe fanatic, and this story was believed to have been at least partially inspired by Poe’s “The Facts In the Case of M. Vandemar.”

It’s also not a secret that Lovecraft was intensely racist, even for the time period in which he lived. He basically didn’t like anyone who wasn’t a white Anglo-Saxon, which is indicated by the distaste that the narrator shows for the Spanish immigrants in his building. Just look up the name of his cat, if you want more proof. Or don’t, because it was literally a racial slur.

This leaves me in a bit of a bind. I do like a number of his ideas, and he was clearly highly influential in the horror genre, but it’s undeniable that his more unsavory beliefs frequently bleed into his work. The idea of “death of the author” can really only stretch so far.

At least I feel less conflicted about buying his work than I would be if he didn’t die 83 years ago.

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