Bad Medicine: Cool Air

Sonia's notesThis special anthology episode of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre features three separate stories of “horrific healing” and medical science gone mad, two from H.P. Lovecraft and one from Edgar Allan Poe. I’m going to take them one by one.

The first is Cool Air, a Lovecraft story set in New York City during the 1920s. It’s about a Spanish doctor with an odd medical condition that requires him to keep his room very cold. You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/ca.aspx

The principal change in this audio adaptation is  the sex of the first-person narrator. In Lovecraft’s story, he is unnamed and refers to himself as a “well-bred man”; here, she is a writer of pulp fiction named Sonia (after Lovecraft’s own wife, with whom he lived in Brooklyn for a couple of years in the 1920s).

When we meet Sonia Rudd (Sarah van der Pol), she and her husband Edwin (Andrew Leman) have fallen on hard times. She is nursing her feverish and desperately ill son; dialog indicates that the couple has already lost at least one other child and it doesn’t look like there’s much hope for this little boy. Sonia insists on keeping the room stiflingly warm. The radiator is turned up, blankets are piled on the child, and Sonia won’t let her husband open the window even a crack to let in a little cool air.

Sonia's heating billSonia explains her aversion to the cold by telling Edwin about a doctor she once knew. Her story provides a narrative framework for the scenes that follow.

A year or so before she met her husband, Sonia was living in a cheap tenement apartment on West 14th St. “Less disgusting than the other places I could afford.”

The most disgusting thing about the place is the ammonia-smelling substance dripping through the ceiling from the apartment immediately above hers. The Spanish-born landlady informs her that her upstairs neighbor is a mysterious recluse named Dr. Muñoz (Sean Branney), that he was once well-known in Spain as a great doctor but is now ill himself, and that the gunk coming through the ceiling are spilled chemicals from his work. The ammonia and other chemicals are used in a refrigeration device that keeps the doctor’s rooms constantly at a chilly 55-56 degrees.

Sonia meets Dr. Muñoz for herself when she experiences chest pains. She has a weak heart, but the doctor attends her and determines that what she’s suffering from isn’t a heart attack. Sonia repeatedly calls this “saving my life,” and it explains her loyalty to the doctor and her reasons for becoming interested his work.*

He tells her to give up her pack a day of Fleurs-de-Lys cigarettes even though her previous physician had told her that smoking was good for her. “I am your doctor now,” he says in his suavely accented voice. He also says that the heart is not the most important thing keeping people alive; the will is, and the heart can be disciplined and one may perhaps even learn to live without it.

As they become friends, Dr. Muñoz shows Sonia some of the rare medical books he has saved from his collection. He has a copy of De Gradibus, which was a real Latin translation of a 9th-century work in Arabic about quantifying the strengths of medications by use of complicated mathematics, with just a touch of astronomy thrown in. She is amazed that he uses a medieval book in his modern medical research, but Dr. Muñoz answers that he “does not scorn the incantations of the medievalists” and that he has certain personal experience of how these “cryptic formulae” can be used to revive life once it appears to be extinct. Eighteen years ago, when his own health failed, his friend and colleague Dr. del Toro** used “archaic processes” to prolong his life. Dr. del Toro died soon after making this effort, and Dr. Muñoz’s condition now requires him to live in rooms that are kept uncomfortably cold to other people. When Sonia visits him, she wears her winter coat.

As the doctor’s condition deteriorates, the temperature of his apartment gets colder and colder, until it reaches a point just above freezing. Then the refrigeration machine conks out. Sonia does what she can to help him fix it, then brings in as much ice as she can… but there’s only so much she can do before the rooms get too warm for Dr. Muñoz. He can no longer conceal what really happened to him 18 years ago that brought him to this state.

Sonia's notes It only runs about 20 minutes, but it packs a lot of  into that short time. Although we hear other voices in this audio drama, Sonia’s is at the center. The addition of this character in this adaptation adds a new layer to the story . She becomes more than a narrative framing device; her experience with Dr. Muñoz goes beyond an explanation of why she dislikes the cold, but has far-reaching consequences in her life years later–as we discover in a shocking and an unexpected conclusion that’s not part of the original story.

There are a number of prop goodies accompanying this CD, but only one related to “Cool Air”. On the back of an incredibly high and unpaid heating bill for the Rudds’ apartment, Sonia has written notes diagnosing her son’s illness, as well as the steps she took to try and save him. There’s also a New York newspaper clipping that primarily concerns the next segment of Bad Medicine, but has a number of interesting and bizarre stories, many of which seem to be related to doctors or medical practice.

Second segment coming up shortly. Bad Medicine: You get a little and it’s never enough…

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*At first, the relationship put me in mind of the Night Gallery adaptation of “Cool Air,” in which features a romance between the chilled doctor and a young woman, but this version doesn’t take the characters in that direction. When Edwin wonders if Sonia might’ve been “sweet on” Dr. Muñoz, her response is a shuddering and emphatic “God, no.”  Night Gallery also tried to inject a romantic situation into “Pickman’s Model,” less successfully.

**The name was Dr. Torres in the original story, but it’s been changed here. Dr. Muñoz also casually refers to his late friend by his first name, Guillermo.

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.