H.P. Lovecraft's "Cool Air" and cryonics

In “Heritage of Horror,” Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi writes that Lovecraft’s short story “Cool Air” “anticipates cryogenic research.” We can forgive Joshi the common mistake of writing “cryogenics” when he means “cryonics,” but how much cryonics is there really in Lovecraft’s “Cool Air?”

“Cool Air” (1926) tells the story of a struggling writer who has secured affordable housing in a converted brownstone on West 14th Street in New York City to devote himself to “dreary and unprofitable magazine work.” Around three weeks pass when an incident in the room above introduces the reader to the character of Dr. Muñoz, whose “complication of maladies” requires an environment of constant cold. When the main character experiences a sudden heart attack, his initial repugnace for the eccentric doctor changes to admiration when Dr. Muñoz is able to offer him relief with a suitable combination of drugs.

Dr. Muñoz, we learn, is the “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.” He believes 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.” As the story develops we learn about the doctor’s own (increasing) need for a cold environment to preserve his bodily frame.

Just as in cryonics, Dr. Muñoz employs cold to prevent decomposition. And decreased temperatures confer increased benefits in slowing down the rate of decomposition. In cryonics these benefits of low temperatures are exploited by reducing the temperature of the patient to a point of complete metabolic arrest. At the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-196 degrees Celcius) biological time stands still for all practical purposes.

But what is remarkable about Dr. Muñoz’s approach is that he reaps the metabolic advantages of induced hypothermia without these temperatures preventing his mind from functioning. Dr. Muñoz seems to be unusually “alive” at ultra-profound, or even, high subzero temperatures! Because the EEG of a human brain becomes flat below 20 degrees Celcius, some other process must be involved, perhaps 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.”

Unless Dr. Muñoz’s treatment induced profound changes in the body’s biochemistry that allowed it to operate at much lower temperatures, his philosophy of life seems less “materialistic” and coherent than that of Lovecraft’s other enemy of death, Herbert West. Lovecraft never anticipated the practice of cryonics in a systematic fashion, but if Dr. Muñoz and Herbert West could have put their brilliant minds together, the benefits of cold temperatures could have been reaped to induce metabolic arrest in anticipation of future resuscitation of the “dead.”

H.P. Lovecraft and the science of resuscitation

H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West is a man of science, not superstition. Following Ernst Haeckel, he believes that “all life is a chemical and psychical process,” that the soul is “a myth,” and that “unless actual decomposition has set in, a corpse fully equipped with organs may with suitable measures be set going again in the peculiar fashion known as life.” Not satisfied with conventional medicine, West devotes his life to creating a solution that will restore artificial life after death. Like many biomedical researchers would find out after him, the same solution can have different effects on different species. But what West is really after is reanimation of humans. And reanimation of humans requires experimentation on humans.

West does not only anticipate the future science of resuscitation, but also the phenomenon of selective vulnerability of certain brain cells because we know that West fully realized “that the psychic or intellectual life might be impaired by the slight deterioration of sensitive brain-cells which even a short period of death would be apt to cause.” As a consequence, his corpses cannot be “fresh” enough. Artificial resuscitation turns out to be a step towards bigger things when we learn that West has ventured into the area of “warm” whole body preservation (suspended animation) by creating a “highly unusual embalming compound” that keeps the body fresh for future resuscitation efforts. Still not satisfied, the “materialist” West moves on to prove that there is nothing special about the brain when he attempts to create mental life by pharmacologic modulation of nervous tissue in a decapitated body. One can only guess what direction West’s research would have taken after these bizarre experiments. Science is hard, but for this medical student of Miskatonic University, resuscitation, suspended animation, and stem cell research are all in a days work.

The greatest mystery in Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator” is that West succeeds in reanimating anything at all. Injection of West’s solution is not followed by artificial circulation, which makes one wonder how such a solution can confer such profound benefits.