"Cool Air" is a short horror story by the American author H.P. Lovecraft. The story was written in March 1926 and first published in the magazine Tales of Magic and Mystery in March 1928. It has since appeared in numerous anthologies.
In the story, the unnamed narrator moves into a boarding house in New York City. He suffers a heart attack one day and is saved by the skillful ministrations of his upstairs neighbor, Dr. Muñoz. The doctor, once a renowned physician, is now confined to his rooms by a mysterious illness. He requires constant cold, and his apartment is chilled by a refrigeration machine. When the machine breaks down during the night, the narrator discovers the horrifying secret behind the doctor's ailment.
"Cool Air" is one of the most accessible stories by Lovecraft. It is a short, classic tale of horror similar to those written by Edgar Allan Poe. The story is not part of the Cthulhu Mythos for which the author is best known.
The story has been adapted to other media many times.
The unnamed narrator of the story is afraid of cool air. He offers the following story as an explanation for his peculiar phobia.
In the spring of 1923, the narrator starts a new job with a magazine in New York City. He finds cheap lodging in West Fourteenth Street. The boarding house, a four-story brownstone formerly opulent but now run down, is run by a Spanish landlady. Most of her tenants are also Spanish.
One evening, the narrator hears a spattering sound and smells ammonia. Finding water dripping from the ceiling in a corner of the room, he goes to see the landlady. She assures the narrator that it will stop shortly then explains that Dr. Muñoz, who lives on the floor above the narrator, has spilled his chemicals. According to the landlady, Dr. Muñoz was once a great doctor in Spain but no longer practices medicine. The doctor is very sick but refuses to seek help. He treats himself with medication and chemicals. He cannot get excited or warm, and he never goes out. The landlady's son brings him supplies, including a large quantity of sal ammoniac to keep him cool. The narrator returns to his room and hears some gasoline-driven machine running upstairs.
On a hot day in late June, the narrator suffers a heart attack while writing in his room. Having previously been warned by his physicians, he knows he needs help immediately. He drags himself upstairs and knocks on the door above his apartment. A curious voice answers in good English from the door to the right of the one he knocked on. Dr. Muñoz opens the second door, and the narrator is greeted by a rush of cool air. Entering the large apartment, the narrator is surprised to find it richly and tastefully decorated in the style of a gentleman's study. The small room above the narrator's apartment apparently serves as the doctor's laboratory. Dr. Muñoz is obviously a man of birth and of striking intelligence. However, the narrator somehow feels repulsed by him, perhaps because of the abnormal chilliness of the room and the doctor's gray complexion and ice-cold hands.
The narrator's repugnance soon turns into admiration as Dr. Muñoz displays his extraordinary skill. The doctor, whether inspired by the rare company of a well-born man or simply to distract the narrator from his ailment, speaks freely in his oddly hollow voice about his theories and experiments. He consoles the narrator about his weak heart by saying that will and consciousness are stronger than the body. The doctor believes science will make it possible to preserve the body so a person suffering from organ failure may continue to live – or at least maintain a form of conscious existence. Dr. Muñoz has dedicated himself to a lifetime of experiments to defeat death. He himself is afflicted with maladies and requires constant cold. His rooms are maintained at 55 or 56 degrees Fahrenheit by a cooling system which uses ammonia.
The narrator recovers quickly, and he and the doctor become friends. The narrator visits the doctor frequently, and the doctor tells him about his research. Dr. Muñoz does not disapprove of unconventional treatments, and there are ancient books on his shelves. He even discusses medieval incantations which he believes psychologically affect and stimulate the nervous system. Dr. Muñoz also speaks about an old colleague, Dr. Torres of Valencia, who treated him eighteen years ago when he became gravely ill. He describes the treatment as extraordinary, involving some methods that would not be welcomed by conservative physicians.
Dr. Muñoz's condition deteriorates as weeks go by. His complexion grows more gray, voice more hollow, and he begins to lose his coordination. He grows fond of Egyptian incense which fills his room with the exotic smell. He demands more cool air, and the narrator helps him modify the refrigeration machine. The room temperature is gradually lowered till it eventually reaches 28 degrees. Dr. Muñoz talks of death incessantly. Although he is no longer a pleasant companion, the narrator continues to take care of the doctor out of gratitude. He does the cleaning and shopping because the landlady no longer allows her son to run errands for the doctor. There is a terrible smell in the room despite the incense and the pungent chemicals in which the doctor frequently bathes. After an initial lassitude, Dr. Muñoz renews his determined efforts to defy death. He ceases to eat and appears to subsist solely on mental power. His appearance and voice are now utterly frightful, and the narrator finds his presence almost unbearable.
One night in the middle of October about eleven, the refrigeration machine breaks down. The narrator is unable to repair it. A mechanic from an all-night garage determines that a piston must be replaced. Nothing can be done till morning when the part can be obtained. Dr. Muñoz is so enraged and terrified that his condition seems to worsen quickly. He suffers a spasm and rushes into the bathroom covering his eyes. He emerges with his face tightly bandaged.
At about 5:00am, Dr. Muñoz retires to the bathroom with instructions for the narrator to keep bringing as much ice as he can get from all-night drug stores and cafeterias. As he drops off the ice in front of the closed bathroom door, the narrator hears a restless splashing and a thick voice demanding more ice. A few hours later, shops begin to open. The landlady refuses to have her son help, so the narrator hires a loafer on the street to keep the doctor supplied with ice while he searches for the piston. It is nearly noon by the time he finds the part at a supply house some distance away. He returns to the boarding house at 1:30pm with two mechanics to do the repair work.
The boarding house is in chaos, with everyone talking and praying. There is a terrible odor coming from Dr. Muñoz's apartment. The narrator learns that the loafer he hired fled screaming shortly after his second delivery of ice. The door to the apartment is now locked, and there is no sound inside except for a slow, thick dripping. The narrator suggests breaking down the door, but the landlady manages to use a wire to turn the key from the outside. Covering their noses with handkerchiefs, they enter the south room which is now warm in the early afternoon sun.
A dark, slimy trail leads from the open bathroom door to the hall door and then to the desk where a terrible little pool has formed. On the desk is a piece of paper with something scrawled on it in pencil. From there the trail leads to the couch where it ends in an unspeakable mess. The landlady and the mechanics rush away to the nearest police station. The narrator manages to make out the scrawled message on the sticky, smeared paper before burning it. He will forever be left with an aversion to the smell of ammonia, and he will feel faint whenever he is hit by a draft of cool air.
According to the note left by Dr. Muñoz, there was a fault in his theory about the will and the preserved body. The body gradually deteriorates after organ failure. Dr. Torres died from the shock and strain of what he had to do to nurse him back. There was no alternative but to use artificial preservation – Dr. Muñoz reveals – "for you see I died that time eighteen years ago."
"Cool Air" was adapted for the television anthology series Night Gallery hosted by Rod Serling. The second-season episode first aired on NBC in the United States on December 8, 1971. Serling also wrote the teleplay for the "Cool Air" segment. In the adaptation, Agatha Howard (played by Barbara Rush), the daughter of an MIT professor, visits Professor Muñoz (played by Henry Darrow) to inform him of her father's death. Muñoz is an attractive middle-aged widower, and romantic feelings soon develop between him and Agatha. After the machine breaks down, the decomposing Muñoz speaks to Agatha from behind a closed door and reveals that his wife committed suicide after his illness because she could not stand living with a corpse.
The 1999 Bryan Moore film Cool Air is a largely faithful adaptation of the short story. The main character (played by Moore) is given the name of Randolph Carter in homage to a recurring character created by Lovecraft. A sentimental backstory is given to Dr. Muñoz (played by Jack Donner) which portrays the doctor as a lonely widower still mourning his wife who died during a cholera outbreak nearly twenty years ago. The doctor's final note does not end with the revelation but goes on to tell Carter never to underestimate the power of the will.
One of the segments of the 1994 anthology film Necronomicon was inspired by "Cool Air," as was the 2007 horror movie Chill.
H.P. Lovecraft's Cool Air, a small-budget independent film released in May 2013, is a very loose adaptation. The story is updated, relocated to California, and features a female "mad doctor."
"Cool Air" has also been adapted for radio and comic books.