“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 absorbption system of ammonia cooling, the gasoline engine of whose pumps I had often heard in my own room below.“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! I’ve nearly read all of Lovecraft thus far (I think this series will only take me as far as March!) and I’ve seen many of his stories stated as influenced by Edgar Allen Poe; although Lovecraft himself states this story is more a homage to Arthur Machen, Poe bleeds off the page in this tale.
Because of this influence there is much lauding that this is a straight supernatural tale (no mythos involved). While it’s structure is exactly like “The Picture in the House” or “The Music of Erich Zann” (let’s be real, this story is the exact formula that many Lovecraft stories take), it’s hard to actually find the threat of Cosmic horror in this one, and for a casual reader, that thread would be lost. I contend that it’s there, however, as well as the influence of one of the most nefarious characters in all of Lovecraft’s Mythos.
Let’s get started shall we?
The first line, if you’ve read much Lovecraft, makes you roll your eyes:
“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.”
It’s a classic entrance to many of his stories, setting us up with what we’re supposed to be expecting while giving a mild redirection of the action and concurrently establishing the unreliable narrator.
The action is pretty straightforward. We have a man who is down on his luck, but at the same time extremely perfidious. He was looking for a place to live, but unable to find anywhere clean enough for him. “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.”
What I find so interesting and a little ridiculous about this revelation is this narrator cared more for the cleanliness of the place and didn’t seem to mind so much about the loud machines running and a smell coming from the room above him from “an absorption system of ammonia cooling, the gasoline engine of whose pumps I had often heard in my own room below.”
The man in the room above, The Spanish Doctor Munoz, who “…most certainly was a man of birth, cultivation, and discrimination.” but then in the very next paragraph describes Munoz as having a physiognomy with a “Moorish touch.” This is our first clue that something is off about the man (well, at least in Lovecraft’s world). I’ve read enough Lovecraft to know that if we have a man of mysterious background and has a tinge of pigment in his skin, he more than likely some kind of ulterior motives. He is either directly a bad actor, or he’s working with someone who is.
Our narrator goes to visit with him and immediately gets a bad feeling from him: “Nevertheless, as I saw Dr. Munoz in that blast of cool air, I felt a repugnance which nothing in his aspect could justify.” We spend the next few paragraphs discussing Munoz, and how “...repugnance was soon replaced with admiration,” as we learn that Munoz has a strange affliction (which we learn a bit of in the opening quote of this essay). The admiration comes because Munoz, instead of letting his affliction run his life (there is a very good reason which we will find out later), he has designed a spectacular contraption to keep his temperature at 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
The narrator reviews some strange ministrations of which he has seen and been through and marvels at how well Munoz’s method works for him, despite the fact that “He developed strange caprices, acquiring a fondness for exotic spices and Egyptian incense till his room smelled like the vault of a sepulchered Pharaoh in the Valley of the Kings.”
Woah there. Wait a minute, wait just one minute. Here now we have two aspects of this story now relating to the Mythos in general. The first is that Munoz has a bunch of bottles in his apartment, both on tables and hanging, the second was that he developed a taste for Egyptian Incense. We know that Munoz “...talked of death incessantly, but laughed hollowly when such things as burial or funeral arrangements were gently suggested.”
If you remember, in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” the essential “Saltes” of people were kept in bottles which Curwen used to bring them back from the dead and make them slaves. Likewise in “The Terrible Old Man” similar bottles were hung about the old sailors house. Having these bottles is a sure sign that Munoz has had some kind of witchcraft in his past…or he is regularly practicing it.
Then we move onto the Egyptian Incense and which is a sly reference to the most nefarious being in Lovecraft’s oeuvre… Nyarlathotep. A cosmic entity who posed as an Egyptian Pharaoh who was heavily scented with said olfaction.
The majority of the Gods in the Mythos aren’t evil. They are just so all powerful and other-worldy that they tend to drive people insane… or smash them as a human would a bug. Nyarlathotep is different. Nyarlathotep is one of those absolute evil beings who would take over the world given the chance. In fact the prose poem Lovecraft wrote about this being shows just how terrible he really is.. Knowing that, everytime Lovecraft makes this kind of reference…to Egypt, Pharoahs, or spices, it immediately calls back to Nyarlathotep.
So what is Munoz doing? What is his connection? Well, we’re about to find out.
Dr. Munoz’s contraption to keep the room cool and to keep him healthy breaks. Our narrator runs out to find parts to replace it, while he has a young man run for ice to keep Munoz chilled.
The narrator comes back to find “The house was in utter turmoil, and above the shatter of awed voices I heard a man praying in a deep basso. Fiendish things were in the air, and lodgers told over the beads of their rosaries as they caught the odour from beneath the doctor’s closed door.“
The young man who was fetching ice had fled after the second load was brought in. He left screaming. Our narrator enters and finds “A kind of dark, slimy trail led from the open bathroom door to the hall door, and thence the desk, where a terrible little pool had accumulated.”
On the desk is a letter which ends our little tale of horror, but rather than have me describe it, you should read it for yourself:
“The end…is here. No more ice – the man looked and ran away. Warmer every minute, and the tissues can’t last. I fancy you know – what I said about the will and the nerves and the preserved body after the organs ceased to work. It was a good theory, but couldn’t keep up indefinitely. There was a gradual deterioration I had not foreseen. Dr. Torres knew, but the shock killed him. He couldn’t stand what he had to do – he had to get me in a strange, dark place when he minded my letter and nursed me back. And the organs never would work again. It had to be done my way – artificial preservation – for you see I dies that time eighteen years ago.”
Join me next week as we analyze “The Rats in the Walls.”