I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 91
“Cool Air” is the last and perhaps the best of Lovecraft’s New York stories. It is a compact exposition of pure physical loathsomeness. The unnamed narrator, having “secured some dreary and unprofitable magazine work” in the spring of 1923, finds himself in a run-down boarding-house whose landlady is a “slatternly, almost bearded Spanish woman named Herrero” and occupied generally by low-life except for one Dr Muñoz, a cultivated and intelligent retired medical man who is continually experimenting with chemicals and indulges in the eccentricity of keeping his room at a temperature of about 55? by means of an ammonia cooling system. The narrator is impressed by Muñoz:
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.
Muñoz, clearly, embodies Lovecraft’s ideal type: a man who belongs both to the aristocracy of blood and the aristocracy of intellect; who is highly learned in his field but also dresses well. How can we not fail to recall Lovecraft’s own lengthy tirades on the subject when he was deprived of his suits? We are, therefore, meant to sympathise wholly with Muñoz’s plight, especially as he is clearly suffering from the effects of some horrible malady that struck him eighteen years ago. When, weeks later, his ammonia cooling system fails, the narrator undertakes a frantic effort to fix it, at the same time enlisting “a seedy-looking loafer” to keep the doctor supplied with the ice that he repeatedly demands in ever larger amounts. But it is to no avail: when the narrator finally returns from his quest to find air-conditioner repairmen, the boarding-house is in turmoil; and when he enters the room, he sees a “kind of dark, slimy trail [that] led from the open bathroom to the hall door” and that “ended unutterably.” In fact, Muñoz died eighteen years before and had been attempting to keep himself functioning by artificial preservation.
There are no transcendent philosophical issues raised by “Cool Air,” but some of the gruesome touches are uncommonly fine. When at one point Muñoz experiences a “spasm [that] caused him to clap his hands to his eyes and rush into the bathroom,” we are clearly to understand that his excitement has caused his eyes nearly to pop out of his head. There is, to be sure, a perhaps deliberate undercurrent of the comic in the whole story, especially when Muñoz, now holed up in a bathtub full of ice, cries through his bathroom door, “More—more!”
Interestingly, Lovecraft later admitted that the chief inspiration for the tale was not Poe’s “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” but Machen’s “Novel of the White Powder,” where a hapless student unwittingly takes a drug that reduces him to “a dark and putrid mass, seething with corruption and hideous rottenness, neither liquid nor solid, but melting and changing before our eyes, and bubbling with unctuous oily bubbles like boiling pitch.” And yet, one can hardly deny that M. Valdemar, the man who, after his presumed death, is kept alive after a fashion for months by hypnosis and who at the end collapses “in a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity,” was somewhere in the back of Lovecraft’s mind in the writing of “Cool Air.” This story, much more than “The Horror at Red Hook,” is Lovecraft’s most successful evocation of the horror to be found in the teeming clangour of America’s only true megalopolis.
The setting of the tale is the brownstone occupied by George Kirk both as a residence and as the site of his Chelsea Book Shop at 317 West 14th Street (between Eighth and Ninth Avenues) in Manhattan. Kirk had left 169 Clinton Street as early as June 1925, after less than five months there. He first moved in with Martin and Sara Kamin, his partner, at 617 West 115th Street in Manhattan, and then, after a brief return to Cleveland, settled at the 14th Street boarding-house in August. Even this did not last long, for by October Kirk moved both his residence and his shop to 365 West 15th Street. Here he remained until he married Lucile Dvorak on March 5, 1927, then opening the Chelsea Book Shop at 58 West 8th Street and remaining there for more than a decade.
Lovecraft therefore had access to the 14th Street residence only for about two months, but it was ample time for him to become familiar with it. Very shortly after Kirk moved in, Lovecraft described the place:
. . . Kirk has hired a pair of immense Victorian rooms as combined office & residence. . . . 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. Kirk’s rooms are the great ground-floor parlours, connected by an open arch, & having windows only in the front room. These two windows open to the south on 14th St., & have the disadvantage of admitting all the babel & clangour of that great crosstown thoroughfare with its teeming traffick & ceaseless street-cars.
That last sentence clearly led to the resounding utterance near the beginning of “Cool Air”: “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 . . .”
Even the ammonia cooling system used in the story has an autobiographical source. In August 1925 Lillian had told Lovecraft of a visit to a theatre in Providence, to which he replied: “Glad you have kept up with the Albee Co., though surprised to hear that the theatre is hot. They have a fine ammonia cooling system installed, & if they do not use it it can only be through a niggardly sense of economy.”
Farnsworth Wright incredibly and inexplicably rejected “Cool Air,” even though it is just the sort of safe, macabre tale he would have liked. Perhaps, as with “In the Vault,” he was afraid of its grisly conclusion. In any event, Lovecraft was forced to sell the story for a very low price to the short-lived Tales of Magic and Mystery, where it appeared in the March 1928 issue.
Sonia’s one stay in New York during the first three months of 1926 occurred between roughly February 15 and March 5. This was, evidently, the first extended period she could get off from Halle’s; and Lovecraft reported upon her departure that, if things went well at the department store, she was not expected to return until June. Meanwhile Lovecraft himself finally secured some employment, even if it was of a temporary and, frankly, ignominious sort. In September Loveman had secured work at the prestigious Dauber & Pine bookshop at Fifth Avenue and 12th Street, and he convinced his superiors to hire Lovecraft as an envelope-addresser for three weeks, probably beginning on March 7. Lovecraft had helped Kirk out at this task on several occasions in 1925, doing the work for nothing because of Kirk’s many kindnesses to him; indeed, on occasion several of the Kalems would address envelopes en masse, talking, singing old songs, and generally making an amusing evening of it. The pay at the Dauber & Pine job would be $17.50 per week. Lovecraft spoke of the enterprise as a lark (“Moriturus te saluto! Before the final plunge into the abyss I am squaring all my indebtedness to mankind, & will reply briefly to your appreciated note . . .”); but in a later letter to Loveman, Sonia wrote: “I knew that when I was in Cleveland you managed to get a couple of weeks’ work for H.P.L. addressing envelopes for Dauber & Pine catalogues. He worked just 2 weeks at $17 a week, and hated it.” I think Sonia is wrong about the duration of the job, since there are no letters to Lillian between March 6 and March 27; but she is probably right about Lovecraft’s reaction to the work, as he never relished repetitive, mechanical tasks of this sort.
Lovecraft himself did not say anything to Lillian about likin
Well!!! All your epistles arrived & received a grateful welcome, but the third one was the climax that relegates everything else to the distance!! Whoop! Bang! I had to go on a celebration forthwith, . . . & have now returned to gloat & reply. A E P G’s letter came, too—riotous symposium!! . . .
And now about your invitation. Hooray!! Long live the State of Rhode-Island & Providence-Plantations!!!
In other words, Lovecraft had at last been invited to return to Providence.
17. Paradise Regain’d
Writing to Arthur Harris in late July 1924, Lovecraft stated: “Though now in New York, I hope to return to Providence some day; for it has a quiet dignity I have never elsewhere observed save in some of the Massachusetts coast towns.” This is an anomalously early indication of his wish to come home, possibly belying the conventional wisdom that Lovecraft’s “honeymoon” with New York lasted for at least half a year; and, in charity, we can assume that such a repatriation would also have included Sonia in some fashion or other. But the real saga of Lovecraft’s efforts to return to Providence can be said to commence around April 1925, when he wrote to Lillian:
As to trips— . . . I couldn’t bear to see Providence again till I can be there for ever. When I do get home, I shall hesitate about going even to Pawtucket or East Providence, whilst the thought of crossing the line into Massachusetts at Hunt’s Mills will fill me with positive horror! But a temporary glimpse would be like that of a distrest mariner swept by a storm within sight of his own harbour, then washed away again into the illimitable blackness of an alien sea.
Lillian had clearly suggested that Lovecraft pay a visit, perhaps to relieve the tedium and even depression that his lack of work, his dismal Clinton Street apartment, and the rocky state of his marriage had engendered. Lovecraft’s response is noteworthy: he does not say “if I get home,” but “when I do get home,” even though he surely knew that any immediate return was economically out of the question. The “alien sea” remark is also highly revealing: it can be nothing other than a reference to New York; and yet, for all his whining about the “aliens” in the city, it was Lovecraft who did not belong. In 1927 he wrote that “I was an unassimilated alien there,” unaware that he has stumbled upon the heart of the matter.
When Lovecraft wrote in November 1925 that “My mental life is really at home” in Providence, he was not exaggerating. For the entirety of his New York stay, he subscribed to the Providence Evening Bulletin, reading the Providence Sunday Journal (the Bulletin published no Sunday edition) along with the New York Times on Sunday. He went so far as to remark to Lillian that the Bulletin “is the only paper worth reading that I have ever seen.” He mentally attempted to stay in touch with Providence in other ways, specifically by reading as many books on Providence history as he could. In February 1925 he acquired Providence: A Modern City (1909), edited by William Kirk, as well as a replacement copy of Henry Mann’s Our Police: A History of the Providence Police Force from the First Watchman to the Latest Appointee (1889), an earlier copy of which he had let slip from his collection a little while before. Then, beginning in late July, he spent the better part of a month and a half making frequent trips to the genealogical reading room of the New York Public Library to read Gertrude Selwyn Kimball’s Providence in Colonial Times (1912), an exhaustive history of the city in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries written by an acquaintance of Annie Gamwell’s who had died in 1910.
But reading books was clearly not enough. I have already quoted Sonia’s testy remark that Lovecraft held on to his Providence furniture “with a morbid tenacity.” This is the subject of one of the most remarkable passages in Lovecraft’s letters to his aunts, and an accurate gauge of his temper during the worst of his New York period. Lillian had made the comment (perhaps as a consequence of Lovecraft’s long-winded account of purchasing his best suit) that “possessions are a burden”; Lovecraft, in August 1925, flung this remark back in her face:
Each individual’s reason for living is different . . . i.e., to each individual there is some one thing or group of things which form the focus of all his interests & nucleus of all his emotions; & without which the mere process of survival not only means nothing whatsoever, but is often an intolerable load & anguish. Those to whom old associations & possessions do not form this single interest & life-necessity, may well sermonise on the folly of “slavery to worldly goods”—so long as they do not try to enforce their doctrines on others.
And where does Lovecraft stand on the issue?
It so happens that I am unable to take pleasure or interest in anything but a mental re-creation of other & better days—for in sooth, I see no possibility of ever encountering a really congenial milieu or living among civilised people with old Yankee historic memories again—so in order to avoid the madness which leads to violence & suicide I must cling to the few shreds of old days & old ways which are left to me. Therefore no one need expect me to discard the ponderous furniture & paintings & clocks & books which help to keep 454 always in my dreams. When they go, I shall go, for they are all that make it possible for me to open my eyes in the morning or look forward to another day of consciousness without screaming in sheer desperation & pounding the walls & floor in a frenzied clamour to be waked up out of the nightmare of “reality” & my own room in Providence. Yes—such sensitivenesses of temperament are very inconvenient when one has no money—but it’s easier to criticise than to cure them. When a poor fool possessing them allows himself to get exiled & sidetracked through temporarily false perspective & ignorance of the world, the only thing to do is to let him cling to his pathetic scraps as long as he can hold them. They are life for him.
A treatise could be written on this inexpressibly poignant passage. No more do we find the confident “when I do get home”; now Lovecraft sees “no possibility” of ever returning. How Lillian reacted to her only nephew speaking with apparent seriousness—or, at least, with extreme bitterness—about suicide and screaming and pounding the walls, it is not possible to say; indeed, it is a little strange that there seems to be no follow-up to this discussion in subsequent letters.
One may as well at this point address a very curious sidelight on this entire matter. Winfield Townley Scott claimed that, according to Samuel Loveman, Lovecraft during the latter part of his New York period “carried a phial of poison with him” (Loveman’s words) so as to be able to put an end to his existence if things became too unbearable. In all honesty, I find this notion entirely preposterous. I flatly believe that Loveman has made up this story—whether to blacken Lovecraft’s reputation or for some other reason, I cannot say. Loveman turned against Lovecraft’s memory later in life, largely on the belief that Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism (about which he learned from Sonia as early as 1948, and perhaps from other sources earlier) made him a hypocrite. It is also possible that Loveman simply misunderstood something that Lovecraft had said—perhaps something meant as a sardonic joke. There is certainly no independent confirmation of this anecdote, and no mention of it by any other friend or correspondent; and one suspects that Lovecraft would have confided in Long more than in Loveman on a matter of such delicacy. I think it is quite out of character for Lovecraft to have come so close to suicide even during this difficult period; indeed, the general tenor of his letters to his aunts, even taking into consideration such passages as I have quoted above, is by no means uniformly depressed or lugubrious. Lovecraft was making every effort within his power to adjust to his circumstances, and he was finding substantial relief from his miseries in antiquarian travels and in association with close friends.
But what about Sonia? The mention in the above letter of a “temporarily false perspective & ignorance of the world” can scarcely refer to anything other than Lovecraft’s marriage, which he i
The subject is not broached again in the surviving letters to Lillian until December:
As for the matter of permanent locations—bless my soul! but S H would only too gladly coöperate in establishing me wherever my mind would be most tranquil & effective! What I meant by ‘a threat of having to return to N.Y.’ was the matter of industrial opportunity, as exemplified in the Paterson possibility; for in my lean financial state almost any remunerative opening would constitute something which I could not with any degree of good sense or propriety refuse. Now if I were still in N.Y., I could perhaps bear such a thing with philosophical resignation; but if I were back home, I could not possibly contemplate the prospect of leaving again. Once in New England, I must be able to stick there—thenceforward scanning Boston or Providence or Salem or Portsmouth for openings, rather than having my eyes on Manhattan or Brooklyn or Paterson or such distant & unfamiliar realms.
Other author's books:
- Black Wings of Cthulhu 6Black Wings of Cthulhu (Volume Six)Black Wings of Cthulhu, Volume 3I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)Black Wings of CthulhuBlack Wings of Cthulhu, Volume 4Black Wings of Cthulhu, Volume 5
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