You ask me to explain why I am afraid of a draught of cool air; why I shiver more than others upon entering a cold room, and seem nauseated and repelled when the chill of evening creeps through the heat of a mild autumn day. There are those who say I respond to cold as others do to a bad odour, and I am the last to deny the impression. What I will do is to relate the most horrible circumstance I ever encountered, and leave it to you to judge whether or not this forms a suitable explanation of my peculiarity.

ORIGINS: Lovecraft wrote “Cool Air” in February 1926 while living alone in New York. By that time, his wife had accepted a position in Cleveland, and Lovecraft, being unemployed and nearly penniless, was forced to vacate their comfortable flat at 259 Parkside Avenue and move into an apartment building at 169 Clinton Street, not far from the slums of Red Hook. During the two years he lived in New York, Lovecraft wrote little, composing “The Shunned House” in 1924, “The Horror at Red Hook,” “He,” and “In the Vault” in the summer of 1925, and “Cool Air” in early 1926. 

PUBLICATION HISTORY: Lovecraft submitted the story to Weird Tales, which rejected it in March 1926. The following year he sent “Cool Air” and seven other stories to Tales of Magic and Mystery, which published “Cool Air” in March 1928. If that magazine had been a success, it could have offered Lovecraft and other weird writers a market other than Weird Tales. Unfortunately, Tales of Magic and Mystery was short lived: it published only five issues between 1927 and 1928.

NARRATION: During the nineteenth century, a great many weird writers, including some of Lovecraft’s favorite authors, composed tales in which their protagonists recite their stories to either a friend or an acquaintance, who acts as a proxy for the reader. “The Upper Berth” (1885), which Lovecraft calls F. Marion Crawford’s “weird masterpiece,” begins with a lagging conversation:

Somebody asked for the cigars. We had talked long, and the conversation was beginning to languish; the tobacco smoke had got into the heavy curtains, the wine had got into those brains which were liable to become heavy, and it was already perfectly evident that, unless somebody did something to rouse our oppressed spirits, the meeting would soon come to its natural conclusion, and we, the guests, would speedily go home to bed, and most certainly to sleep. No one had said anything very remarkable; it may be that no one had anything very remarkable to say.

The “story” actually begins when Brisbane informs the circle that he has seen a ghost.

In “Cool Air,” however, Lovecraft’s narrator addresses the reader directly. By doing so, Lovecraft sheds the elaborate framework on display in stories like “The Upper Berth” and establishes a more intimate connection with the reader. Lovecraft was evidently fond of the technique, for it appears elsewhere in his fiction. The narrator of “Dagon” (1917), for instance, begins his tale by claiming that “when you have read these hastily scrawled pages you may guess, though never fully realise, why it is that I must have forgetfulness or death.”



It is a mistake to fancy that horror is associated inextricably with darkness, silence, and solitude. I found it in the glare of mid-afternoon, in the clangour of a metropolis, and in the teeming midst of a shabby and commonplace rooming-house with a prosaic landlady and two stalwart men by my side. In the spring of 1923 I had secured some dreary and unprofitable magazine work in the city of New York; and being unable to pay any substantial rent, began drifting from one cheap boarding establishment to another in search of a room which might combine the qualities of decent cleanliness, endurable furnishings, and very reasonable price. It soon developed that I had only a choice between different evils, but after a time I came upon a house in West Fourteenth Street which disgusted me much less than the others I had sampled.

DARKNESS, SOLITUDE, AND MYSTERY: Lovecraft’s tales, particularly his early ones, often comment on literary conventions and, in some cases, on life in general. His story “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1920), for instance, begins with this remarkable claim:

Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species—if separate species we be—for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world.

Lovecraft’s classic story “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), which Lovecraft wrote shortly after “Cool Air,” postulates a similar theory:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

In a sense, Lovecraft’s tale “The Unnamable” (1923) is nothing more than a creative defense of Lovecraft’s writing. In it, the narrator engages in a debate with his friend, Joel Manton, who criticizes his writing style and chides him for his “constant talk about ‘unnamable’ and ‘unmentionable’ things.” In the end, Manton recants when he himself witnesses a monstrosity he can only describe as “unnamable.”

Though far more subtle, “Cool Air” continues this tradition and, when viewed in that light, constitutes an attack on the increasingly trite, yet eternally popular, conventions of Gothic literature, which invariably associates horror with “darkness, silence, and solitude.” In his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927), which he would complete the following year, Lovecraft would return to this theme, claiming that Gothic literature was little more than an “infinite array of stage properties which includes strange lights, damp trap-doors, extinguished lamps, mouldy hidden manuscripts, creaking hinges, shaking arras, and the like.”

And yet, early in his career, Lovecraft was not above employing these “stage properties.” His story “The Rats in the Walls” (1923), for instance, takes place in Exham Priory, an ancient and ill-rumored castle in England, which would not be out of place in a Gothic novel. As Lovecraft matured as a writer and his knowledge of weird fiction deepened, he increasingly rejected the Gothic influence he had absorbed, probably through Edgar Allan Poe, and sought horror in unexpected places. As he states in his story “The Picture in the House” (1920), Lovecraft eventually found his source for horror in, of all places, New England itself:

Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.

MAGAZINE WORK: By early 1926, Lovecraft would have been grateful for “some dreary and unprofitable magazine work in the city of New York.” When he moved to the metropolis in March 1924, Lovecraft had hoped to secure a literary position for himself. Initially, at least, his prospects seemed strong. In 1924, J. C. Henneberger, the publisher of Weird Tales, commissioned Lovecraft to ghostwrite a story for Harry Houdini and, shortly afterwards, offered him the editorship of Weird Tales. Unwilling to move to Chicago, Lovecraft declined. Later that year, Henneberger hired Lovecraft to edit a humor magazine he was planning. Unfortunately, the proposed magazine never materialized, and as a result, Lovecraft, whose income as a writer was minimal, had to depend on the financial support of his wife and his two maternal aunts. Though he did obtain several temporary positions, including a job selling movie tickets, Lovecraft remained, at best, chronically underemployed during his sojourn in New York. 

WEST FOURTEENTH STREET: A major thoroughfare, West 14th Street acts as a boundary, separating Greenwich Village, which lies to the south, from Chelsea and lower Midtown. Though dismissive of the artists living in the Village, Lovecraft was fascinated by the neighborhood itself, referring to it as “that quaint & artificial colony of half-baked would-be aesthetes called ‘Greenwich Village.'”


The place was a four-story mansion of brownstone, dating apparently from the late forties, and fitted with woodwork and marble whose stained and sullied splendour argued a descent from high levels of tasteful opulence. In the rooms, large and lofty, and decorated with impossible paper and ridiculously ornate stucco cornices, there lingered a depressing mustiness and hint of obscure cookery; but the floors were clean, the linen tolerably regular, and the hot water not too often cold or turned off, so that I came to regard it as at least a bearable place to hibernate till one might really live again. The landlady, a slatternly, almost bearded Spanish woman named Herrero, did not annoy me with gossip or with criticisms of the late-burning electric light in my third-floor front hall room; and my fellow-lodgers were as quiet and uncommunicative as one might desire, being mostly Spaniards a little above the coarsest and crudest grade. Only the din of street cars in the thoroughfare below proved a serious annoyance.

A FOUR-STORY MANSION: Lovecraft based his setting on an actual place: the brownstone at 317 West 14th Street where his friend George Kirk lived and worked, his Chelsea Book Shop being in the same building. In a letter to his aunt Lillian D. Clark, Lovecraft describes the structure, which he criticizes for its opulent, almost decadent, ornamentation:

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.

THE LANDLADY: Lovecraft seldom writes sympathetically of women. Though they rarely appear in his fiction, when they do, they are almost invariably villainous. Lavinia Whateley, for instance, whom Lovecraft describes as a “somewhat deformed, unattractive albino woman of thirty-five,” brings twin monstrosities into the world; Asenath Waite uses her dark magic to displace her husband’s consciousness and thus steal his body; and Keziah Mason, perhaps the most heinous of them all, kidnaps and sacrifices small children.

HERRERO: Lovecraft’s description of Herrero recalls similar passages elsewhere in his fiction. In “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925), for instance, he describes the grandmother glimpsed at the end of the tale as “a swarthy squinting hag.” As for Keziah Mason, the villainous witch mentioned above, he describes her as possessing a “bent back, long nose, and shriveled chin” and wearing an expression of “hideous malevolence and exultation.”

And yet, despite Lovecraft’s evident hostility to older women, who appear as hags in his fiction, he deeply loved the two older women in his own life, his maternal aunts Lillian D. Clark and Annie E. P. Gamwell. During his time in New York, Lovecraft wrote them both frequently and often urged them to visit. In his letters to Lillian, who was born in 1856, he refers to her as “my dear daughter.”   

SPANIARDS: Bigotry pervades Lovecraft’s fiction, letters, essays, and verse. In many cases, Lovecraft’s racism and elitism converge, so that foreign-born peoples, when they do appear in Lovecraft’s fiction, are invariably of the “coarsest and crudest grade.” Having said that, “Cool Air” contains far fewer racist sentiments than Lovecraft’s other tales set in New York. In “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925), Lovecraft’s most overtly xenophobic tale, he describes how the changing demographics of Red Hook have corrupted the once-charming district: 

The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles. Here long ago a brighter picture dwelt, with clear-eyed mariners on the lower streets and homes of taste and substance where the larger houses line the hill. One can trace the relics of this former happiness in the trim shapes of the buildings, the occasional graceful churches, and the evidences of original art and background in bits of detail here and there—a worn flight of steps, a battered doorway, a wormy pair of decorative columns or pilasters, or a fragment of once green space with bent and rusted iron railing. The houses are generally in solid blocks, and now and then a many-windowed cupola arises to tell of days when the households of captains and ship-owners watched the sea.   

Though “Cool Air” contains only a brief mention of Spanish immigrants, Lovecraft’s feelings of resentment and hostility can be detected just beneath the surface. 


I had been there about three weeks when the first odd incident occurred. One evening at about eight I heard a spattering on the floor and became suddenly aware that I had been smelling the pungent odour of ammonia for some time. Looking about, I saw that the ceiling was wet and dripping; the soaking apparently proceeding from a corner on the side toward the street. Anxious to stop the matter at its source, I hastened to the basement to tell the landlady; and was assured by her that the trouble would quickly be set right.

“Doctair Muñoz,” she cried as she rushed upstairs ahead of me, “he have speel hees chemicals. He ees too seeck for doctair heemself—seecker and seecker all the time—but he weel not have no othair for help. He ees vairy queer in hees seeckness—all day he take funnee-smelling baths, and he cannot get excite or warm. All hees own housework he do—hees leetle room are full of bottles and machines, and he do not work as doctair. But he was great once—my fathair in Barcelona have hear of heem—and only joost now he feex a arm of the plumber that get hurt of sudden. He nevair go out, only on roof, and my boy Esteban he breeng heem hees food and laundry and mediceens and chemicals. My Gawd, the sal-ammoniac that man use for keep heem cool!”

THE CEILING WAS WET AND DRIPPING: A dripping ceiling also figures prominently in Lovecraft’s “The Picture in the House” (1920). In that tale, the narrator, who has been forced to listen to the cannibalistic ravings of a madman, notices a drop of blood on the book the two men have been reading:

The open book lay flat between us, with the picture staring repulsively upward. As the old man whispered the words “more the same” a tiny spattering impact was heard, and something shewed on the yellowed paper of the upturned volume. I thought of the rain and of a leaky roof, but rain is not red. On the butcher’s shop of the Anzique cannibals a small red spattering glistened picturesquely, lending vividness to the horror of the engraving. The old man saw it, and stopped whispering even before my expression of horror made it necessary; saw it and glanced quickly toward the floor of the room he had left an hour before. I followed his glance, and beheld just above us on the loose plaster of the ancient ceiling a large irregular spot of wet crimson which seemed to spread even as I viewed it.

The implication, if unclear, is that the man has stored a half-eaten body in the room upstairs. 

DOCTAIR: Though their occupations differ, Lovecraft’s characters tend to be gentlemen. A great many are doctors, including the title character from “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922), Elihu Whipple from “The Shunned House” (1924), and Marinus Bicknell Willett from “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (1927). Others are students (Walter Gilman from “The Dreams in the Witch House”), professors (Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee from “The Shadow out of Time,” Albert Wilmarth from “The Whisperer in Darkness,” and William Dyer from At the Mountains of Madness), and writers (Robert Blake from “The Haunter of the Dark”). 

Some of these characters may have been inspired by Lovecraft’s scholarly uncle, Franklin Chase Clark (1847-1915), who married Lovecraft’s aunt in 1902 when Lovecraft was eleven. A graduate of both Brown and Harvard Medical School, Dr. Clark served as a father to Lovecraft, whose own father had died in 1898.  

DIALECT: Despite the formality characteristic of Lovecraft’s prose, he occasionally incorporates regional dialects into his dialogue. As in the scene above, his use of dialect often contrasts the educated diction of his narrators with the almost unintelligible ramblings of the lower class, thus revealing Lovecraft’s elitist sentiments. Similar examples can be found in “The Picture in the House” (1920), “He” (1925), and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931).     

FULL OF BOTTLES AND MACHINES: One wonders if Lovecraft was thinking of his childhood laboratory when he wrote this. After discovering chemistry in 1898, Lovecraft convinced his grandfather, with whom he had lived since his father had been committed, to create a laboratory for him in the basement at 454 Angell Street. In a letter to Alfred Galpin, written twenty years after the events related, Lovecraft describes his lab in loving detail:

Chemical apparatus especially attracted me, & I resolved (before knowing a thing about the science!) to have a laboratory. Being a “spoiled child” I had but to ask, & it was mine. I was given a cellar room of good size, & provided by my elder aunt (who had studied chemistry at boarding school) with some simple apparatus & a copy of “The Young Chemist”—a beginner’s manual by Prof. John Howard Appleton of Brown—a personal acquaintance. . . . The laboratory “work”—or play—seemed delightful, & despite a few mishaps, explosions, & broken instruments, I got along splendidly.

As curious as Dr. Muñoz’s rooms are, his laboratory is far less gruesome than the one maintained by Herbert West:

West had a private laboratory in an east room of the barn-like temporary edifice, assigned him on his plea that he was devising new and radical methods for the treatment of hitherto hopeless cases of maiming. There he worked like a butcher in the midst of his gory wares—I could never get used to the levity with which he handled and classified certain things. At times he actually did perform marvels of surgery for the soldiers; but his chief delights were of a less public and philanthropic kind, requiring many explanations of sounds which seemed peculiar even amidst that babel of the damned. Among these sounds were frequent revolver-shots—surely not uncommon on a battlefield, but distinctly uncommon in an hospital. Dr. West’s reanimated specimens were not meant for long existence or a large audience. Besides human tissue, West employed much of the reptile embryo tissue which he had cultivated with such singular results. It was better than human material for maintaining life in organless fragments, and that was now my friend’s chief activity. In a dark corner of the laboratory, over a queer incubating burner, he kept a large covered vat full of this reptilian cell-matter; which multiplied and grew puffily and hideously.

Written only four years after “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922), “Cool Air” demonstrates far more restraint than Lovecraft’s earlier tales.


Mrs. Herrero disappeared up the staircase to the fourth floor, and I returned to my room. The ammonia ceased to drip, and as I cleaned up what had spilled and opened the window for air, I heard the landlady’s heavy footsteps above me. Dr. Muñoz I had never heard, save for certain sounds as of some gasoline-driven mechanism; since his step was soft and gentle. I wondered for a moment what the strange affliction of this man might be, and whether his obstinate refusal of outside aid were not the result of a rather baseless eccentricity. There is, I reflected tritely, an infinite deal of pathos in the state of an eminent person who has come down in the world.

HEAVY FOOTSTEPS: Notice how subtly Lovecraft compares Mrs. Herrero, whose “heavy footsteps” can be heard downstairs, to Dr. Muñoz, whose “step was soft and gentle.” Though a simple comparison, it reveals how important Lovecraft believed class to be. Compared to her superiors, Mrs. Herrero is not only less intelligent, less knowledgeable, and less articulate, she is also less graceful!  

COME DOWN IN THE WORLD: Even though the narrator reflects “tritely” on the state of those who have “come down in the world,” Lovecraft himself fit that description. Born into a prominent family, Lovecraft took great pride in the accomplishments of his mother’s relatives. And yet, even as a small child growing up in his grandfather’s magnificent home in Providence, Lovecraft realized that the family’s fortunes were on the decline:

Money as a definite conception was wholly absent from my horizon. Rather was I a simple, unplaced entity like the carefree figures moving through the Hellenick myths. But actual decline did set in when I was about ten years old; so that I saw a steady dropping of servants, horses, and other adjuncts of domestick management. Even before my grandfather’s death a sense of peril and falling-off was strong within me, so that I felt a kinship to Poe’s gloomy heroes with their broken fortunes.

In early 1904, a dam in which Lovecraft’s grandfather had invested burst, and in March of that year, his grandfather suffered a stroke and passed away. The family’s finances, which had always depended on Whipple Van Buren Phillips’s business acumen, quickly deteriorated:

His death brought financial disaster besides its more serious grief. . . . With his passing, the rest of the board lost their initiative & courage. The corporation was unwisely dissolved at a time when my grandfather would have persevered—with the result that others reaped the wealth which should have gone to its stockholders. My mother & I were forced to vacate the beautiful estate at 454 Angell Street, & to enter the less spacious abode at 598, three squares eastward.


I might never have known Dr. Muñoz had it not been for the heart attack that suddenly seized me one forenoon as I sat writing in my room. Physicians had told me of the danger of those spells, and I knew there was no time to be lost; so remembering what the landlady had said about the invalid’s help of the injured workman, I dragged myself upstairs and knocked feebly at the door above mine. My knock was answered in good English by a curious voice some distance to the right, asking my name and business; and these things being stated, there came an opening of the door next to the one I had sought.

A rush of cool air greeted me; and though the day was one of the hottest of late June, I shivered as I crossed the threshold into a large apartment whose rich and tasteful decoration surprised me in this nest of squalor and seediness. A folding couch now filled its diurnal role of sofa, and the mahogany furniture, sumptuous hangings, old paintings, and mellow bookshelves all bespoke a gentleman’s study rather than a boarding-house bedroom. I now saw that the hall room above mine—the “leetle room” of bottles and machines which Mrs. Herrero had mentioned—was merely the laboratory of the doctor; and that his main living quarters lay in the spacious adjoining room whose convenient alcoves and large contiguous bathroom permitted him to hide all dressers and obtrusive utilitarian devices. Dr. Muñoz, most certainly, was a man of birth, cultivation, and discrimination.

GOOD ENGLISH: Unlike Mrs. Herrero and the other residents who are “a little above the coarsest and crudest grade,” Dr. Muñoz speaks “good English.” From Lovecraft’s perspective, Dr. Muñoz, by assimilating to American customs, has become a sort of honorary Anglo-Saxon. As incredible and intolerant as it may seem, Lovecraft treated his wife, who was a Jewish immigrant from Russia, in the same fashion. In her memoir, she claims that, whenever she would remind him that she, too, was a member of the “alien hordes” he resented so much, he would say “You are now Mrs. H. P. Lovecraft of 598 Angell Street, Providence, Rhode Island.” 

A GENTLEMAN’S STUDY: It is no surprise that Lovecraft’s narrator approves of Dr. Muñoz’s rooms: Lovecraft himself arranged his apartment at 169 Clinton Street in much the same way, hiding all “obtrusive utilitarian devices” and thus transforming his sleeping quarters into a “gentleman’s study”: 

On December 31, 1924, I established myself in a large room of pleasing & tasteful proportions at 169 Clinton St., cor. of State, in the Heights or Borough Hall section of Brooklyn, in an house of early Victorian date with white classick woodwork & tall windows with panell’d seats. Two alcoves with portieres enable one to preserve the pure library effect, & the whole forms a pleasing hermitage for an old-fashion’d man, with its generous view of ancient brick houses in State & Clinton Sts.    

BIRTH, CULTIVATION, AND DISCRIMINATION: Lovecraft’s obsession with rank and breeding declined as he grew older. As his circle of acquaintance grew, he met more and more people, including the poet Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) and the writer Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), who possessed remarkable talents despite not being men of “birth, cultivation, and discrimination.”


The figure before me was short but exquisitely proportioned, and clad in somewhat formal dress of perfect cut and fit. A high-bred face of masterful though not arrogant expression was adorned by a short iron-grey full beard, and an old-fashioned pince-nez shielded the full, dark eyes and surmounted an aquiline nose which gave a Moorish touch to a physiognomy otherwise dominantly Celtiberian. Thick, well-trimmed hair that argued the punctual calls of a barber was parted gracefully above a high forehead; and the whole picture was one of striking intelligence and superior blood and breeding.

Nevertheless, as I saw Dr. Muñoz in that blast of cool air, I felt a repugnance which nothing in his aspect could justify. Only his lividly inclined complexion and coldness of touch could have afforded a physical basis for this feeling, and even these things should have been excusable considering the man’s known invalidism. It might, too, have been the singular cold that alienated me; for such chilliness was abnormal on so hot a day, and the abnormal always excites aversion, distrust, and fear.

PERFECT CUT AND FIT: Lovecraft believed very strongly in the importance of good taste and graceful manners. When his apartment was burglarized in May 1925 and much of his clothing stolen, he began an almost Quixotic quest for the perfect suit, one both sophisticated and affordable. As for those less well dressed, Lovecraft had nothing but disdain:

It amuses me to see how some of these flashy young ‘boobs’ & foreigners spend fortunes on various kinds of expensive clothes which they regard as evidences of meritorious taste, but which in reality are their absolute social & aesthetic damnation—being little short of placards shrieking in bold letters: “I am an ignorant peasant”, “I am a mongrel gutter-rat”, or “I am a tasteless & unsophisticated yokel.”  

MOORISH: The Moors, who invaded Iberia in 711, were the Islamic rulers of the Iberian Peninsula. During the Middle Ages, indigenous Christians gradually regained control of the peninsula, capturing the last Moorish stronghold, Granada, in 1492. Though the term is typically associated with the Umayyad regime in Iberia, it was used loosely during the Middle Ages to refer to a number of Muslim peoples.

CELTIBERIAN: Before the Moors invaded Iberia, it was ruled by the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe that had displaced the Romans in the fifth century. Before the Romans, the peninsula had been populated by Celtic peoples. In light of Lovecraft’s views on race, specifically his belief in the superiority of Nordic peoples, it may be significant that he associates Dr. Muñoz with the Celts and the Moors as opposed to the Germans and the Romans.  

THE ABNORMAL ALWAYS EXCITES AVERSION, DISTRUST, AND FEAR: Lovecraft’s observation recalls his celebrated claim that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” which appears in the introduction to his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927). And yet, as similar as the two statements sound, one refers to a fear of the “abnormal,” the other to a fear of the unknown. One wonders if people fear the abnormal because it differs from the known or because it is, to them, unknown.


But repugnance was soon forgotten in admiration, for the strange physician’s extreme skill at once became manifest despite the ice-coldness and shakiness of his bloodless-looking hands. He clearly understood my needs at a glance, and ministered to them with a master’s deftness; the while reassuring me in a finely modulated though oddly hollow and timbreless voice that he was the bitterest of sworn enemies to death, and had sunk his fortune and lost all his friends in a lifetime of bizarre experiment devoted to its bafflement and extirpation. Something of the benevolent fanatic seemed to reside in him, and he rambled on almost garrulously as he sounded my chest and mixed a suitable draught of drugs fetched from the smaller laboratory room. Evidently he found the society of a well-born man a rare novelty in this dingy environment, and was moved to unaccustomed speech as memories of better days surged over him.

HOLLOW AND TIMBRELESS VOICE: Most of Lovecraft’s monstrosities are eerily silent, being far too outré to communicate, or desire communication, with human beings. The unseen entity that the narrator hears at the end of “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1919) is an exception. Lovecraft describes its voice as “deep; hollow; gelatinous; remote; unearthly; inhuman; disembodied.” The nature of the thing, which dwells in a tomb far beneath an ancient cemetery, is never clarified, but the narrator does refer to “certain corpses [that] never decay, but rest firm and fat in their tombs for a thousand years.”  

BIZARRE EXPERIMENT: Though Lovecraft quickly abandoned the archetype, several of his early stories revolve around mad scientists. Crawford Tillinghast, the earliest and most eccentric, appears in “From Beyond” (1920) and seeks nothing less than to harness “the shadows that stride from world to world to sow death and madness.” His invention, which he demonstrates to the narrator, can “break down the barriers” erected by our senses and permit people to observe seemingly supernatural phenomenon.

Herbert West, the mad doctor of “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922), more closely resembles Dr. Muñoz, for both men consider themselves the “bitterest of sworn enemies to death.” Unlike Dr. Muñoz, however, West seems far less interested in preserving life and far more interested in proving “his wild theories on the nature of death and the possibility of overcoming it artificially.” Compared to Tillinghast and West, both of whom are homicidal, Dr. Muñoz is, by far, the most sympathetic.


His voice, if queer, was at least soothing; and I could not even perceive that he breathed as the fluent sentences rolled urbanely out. 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! For his part, he was afflicted with a complication of maladies requiring a very exact regimen which included constant cold. Any marked rise in temperature might, if prolonged, affect him fatally; and the frigidity of his habitation—some 55 or 56 degrees Fahrenheit—was maintained by an absorption system of ammonia cooling, the gasoline engine of whose pumps I had often heard in my own room below.

Relieved of my seizure in a marvellously short while, I left the shivery place a disciple and devotee of the gifted recluse. After that I paid him frequent overcoated calls; listening while he told of secret researches and almost ghastly results, and trembling a bit when I examined the unconventional and astonishingly ancient volumes on his shelves. I was eventually, I may add, almost cured of my disease for all time by his skilful ministrations. It seems that he did not scorn the incantations of the mediaevalists, since he believed these cryptic formulae to contain rare psychological stimuli which might conceivably have singular effects on the substance of a nervous system from which organic pulsations had fled. I was touched by his account of the aged Dr. Torres of Valencia, who had shared his earlier experiments with him through the great illness of eighteen years before, whence his present disorders proceeded. No sooner had the venerable practitioner saved his colleague than he himself succumbed to the grim enemy he had fought. Perhaps the strain had been too great; for Dr. Muñoz made it whisperingly clear—though not in detail—that the methods of healing had been most extraordinary, involving scenes and processes not welcomed by elderly and conservative Galens.

THE INCANTATIONS OF THE MEDIAEVALISTS: Quite frequently, Lovecraft’s protagonists learn not to scorn the wisdom of the ancients. In “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932), the incantations of the mediaevalists provide “a mediocre old woman of the seventeenth century [with] an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter.” 

VALENCIA: One of the largest cities in Spain, Valencia lies on the Balearic Sea, southwest of Barcelona and due west of the Balearic Islands. During the Middle Ages, the city and the surrounding coastline belonged to the Crown of Aragon. It was united with the rest of Spain in the fifteenth century by the Catholic Monarchs, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. To this day, the people of Valencia speak Catalan as opposed to Spanish.

ELDERLY AND CONSERVATIVE GALENS: Lovecraft is alluding to Galen of Pergamon, a Greek physician and philosopher whose teachings remained influential throughout the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, physicians disproved many of Galen’s theories by performing dissections on human corpses, something Galen had never done. With that in mind, Lovecraft may be hinting that Dr. Muñoz’s “elderly and conservative” peers are just as misguided as Galen was. 

In “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922), the title character, who resembles Dr. Muñoz in so many ways, also earns the censure of his colleagues. While a student at Miskatonic University Medical School, West proposes that, with the proper chemical solution, life could be restored to dead issue, a hypothesis that is “widely ridiculed by the faculty and his fellow-students.” 


As the weeks passed, I observed with regret that my new friend was indeed slowly but unmistakably losing ground physically, as Mrs. Herrero had suggested. The livid aspect of his countenance was intensified, his voice became more hollow and indistinct, his muscular motions were less perfectly coördinated, and his mind and will displayed less resilience and initiative. Of this sad change he seemed by no means unaware, and little by little his expression and conversation both took on a gruesome irony which restored in me something of the subtle repulsion I had originally felt.

He developed strange caprices, acquiring a fondness for exotic spices and Egyptian incense till his room smelled like the vault of a sepulchred Pharaoh in the Valley of Kings. At the same time his demands for cold air increased, and with my aid he amplified the ammonia piping of his room and modified the pumps and feed of his refrigerating machine till he could keep the temperature as low as 34° or 40° and finally even 28°; the bathroom and laboratory, of course, being less chilled, in order that water might not freeze, and that chemical processes might not be impeded. The tenant adjoining him complained of the icy air from around the connecting door, so I helped him fit heavy hangings to obviate the difficulty. A kind of growing horror, of outré and morbid cast, seemed to possess him. He talked of death incessantly, but laughed hollowly when such things as burial or funeral arrangements were gently suggested.

LOSING GROUND PHYSICALLY: In many ways, “Cool Air” resembles Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), in which a mesmerist hypnotizes a dying man, thus saving him from death. When awakened, the hypnotized corpse, which has been preserved in a kind of living death, instantly disintegrates. As disturbing as Poe’s tale is, Lovecraft improves upon the basic plot by giving Dr. Muñoz a far more active role than the one Poe assigned to M. Valdemar and forcing readers to watch as Dr. Muñoz, who still insists that he is alive, decomposes.

VALLEY OF KINGS: For almost five hundred years, from the sixteenth to the eleventh centuries B.C., the ancient Egyptians buried their pharaohs in a valley on the west side of the Nile, just across the river from Thebes. The tombs, one of which belonged to Tutankhamun, were cut into the rock cliffs lining the valley.

Though Lovecraft never felt the psychological attachment to ancient Egypt that he felt for ancient Rome and, to a slightly lesser extent, ancient Greece, he was still fascinated by the civilization. Lovecraft frequently and learnedly discusses the history of Egypt in his correspondence, but only one of his tales, “Under the Pyramids” (1924), which he wrote for Harry Houdini, actually takes place in Egypt. References to Egypt, however, appear in several tales. In “Nyarlathotep” (1920), for instance, the Antichrist, who is “of the old native blood and [looks] like a Pharaoh,” appears first in Egypt.

TALKED OF DEATH INCESSANTLY: Unlike Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft found knowledge, not death, to be the source of all horror. That is not to say that his protagonists never find themselves in physical danger; they do. Having said that, they are not haunted by a fear of death. They are haunted by a truth they cannot bring themselves to accept.