COOL AIR XII

He acquired a habit of writing long documents of some sort, which he carefully sealed and filled with injunctions that I transmit them after his death to certain persons whom he named—for the most part lettered East Indians, but including a once celebrated French physician now generally thought dead, and about whom the most inconceivable things had been whispered. As it happened, I burned all these papers undelivered and unopened. His aspect and voice became utterly frightful, and his presence almost unbearable. One September day an unexpected glimpse of him induced an epileptic fit in a man who had come to repair his electric desk lamp; a fit for which he prescribed effectively whilst keeping himself well out of sight. That man, oddly enough, had been through the terrors of the Great War without having incurred any fright so thorough.


EAST INDIANS: Rarely used today, the term “East Indies” refers to the Malay Archipelago, a series of islands in Southeast Asia, which includes Java, Sumatra, Luzon, Borneo, and New Guinea. In 1926, when “Cool Air” was written, most of the archipelago belonged to the Dutch East Indies.

FRENCH PHYSICIAN: Though subtle, Lovecraft’s prejudices never lie far below the surface of his fiction. In Lovecraft’s mind, Dr. Muñoz’s conspirators could be French, Spanish, or East Asian, but they could never be English. 

UTTERLY FRIGHTFUL: Typical of Lovecraft’s style, the passage states that Dr. Muñoz’s appearance has become “utterly frightful” instead of actually describing his appearance. By doing so, Lovecraft’s writing violates the principle “show, don’t tell,” but it also encourages readers to use their own imaginations. Lovecraft’s restraint, moreover, prevents the tale from degenerating into a litany of over-the-top horrors.

THE GREAT WAR: References to World War I abound in Lovecraft’s fiction. The conflict actually plays a central role in “Dagon” (1917), which was written a few months after the United States entered the war, and “The Temple” (1920), which chronicles the strange fate of Karl Heinrich, a commander in the Imperial German Navy.

Though the war is no more than mentioned in “Pickman’s Model” (1926), the narrator of that story expresses a sentiment almost identical to the one above. Eager to prove that the fright he experienced at Pickman’s studio was not the result of either cowardice or squeamishness, Thurber offers his service in the Great War as evidence: “I’m middle-aged and decently sophisticated, and I guess you saw enough of me in France to know I’m not easily knocked out.” The courageous, it seems, can steel themselves against purely natural horrors, no matter how shocking or gruesome, but their bravery provides no defense against the mind-shattering experience that is supernatural horror. 

DAGON II

It was in one of the most open and least frequented parts of the broad Pacific that the packet of which I was supercargo fell a victim to the German sea-raider. The great war was then at its very beginning, and the ocean forces of the Hun had not completely sunk to their later degradation; so that our vessel was made a legitimate prize, whilst we of her crew were treated with all the fairness and consideration due us as naval prisoners. So liberal, indeed, was the discipline of our captors, that five days after we were taken I managed to escape alone in a small boat with water and provisions for a good length of time.


WORLD WAR I: Lovecraft, being a devout and sincere anglophile, championed the cause of the Allies in the Great War. In both poems and essays, he calls upon the United States to renounce neutrality and assist the British Empire by declaring war on Germany and Austria. From Lovecraft’s perspective, America and England formed  a single nation, divided politically but united by culture, language, and ethnicity. In “An American to Mother England,” one of Lovecraft’s many anglophilic poems, he celebrates this shared heritage, claiming that “From British bodies, minds, and souls I come, / And from them draw the vision of their home.” In his amateur paper, The Conservative, he refers to this concept as “Pan-Saxonism” and, beating loudly on the drums of war, calls for a “healthy militarism” as opposed to “dangerous and unpatriotic peace-preaching.”

SUBMARINE WARFARE: Lovecraft returned to this theme again in his short story “The Temple” (1920), his only truly nautical tale. Purporting to be the log of Karl Heinrich, Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein, Lieutenant-Commander in the Imperial German Navy, “The Temple” records the last days of U-29, a disabled submarine which has settled on the ocean floor. While the German crew mentioned in “Dagon” treats its prisoners with “all the fairness and consideration due us as naval prisoners,” Heinrich calmly murders his:

On the afternoon of June 18, as reported by wireless to the U-61, bound for Kiel, we torpedoed the British freighter Victory, New York to Liverpool, in N. Latitude 45° 16′, W. Longitude 28° 34′; permitting the crew to leave in boats in order to obtain a good cinema view for the admiralty records. The ship sank quite picturesquely, bow first, the stern rising high out of the water whilst the hull shot down perpendicularly to the bottom of the sea. Our camera missed nothing, and I regret that so fine a reel of film should never reach Berlin. After that we sank the lifeboats with our guns and submerged.

LUSITANIA: In May 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, sinking the ocean liner and killing almost 1,200 people. The American public was outraged, none more so than Lovecraft. In his poem “The Crime of Crimes,” he lambasts the “Prussian wolf” for sinking the Lusitania and calls upon all mankind to “crush the hissing head / That all the world hath learn’d to hate and dread.”