Sunday, September 1, 2013

Lovecraft 101 - The Music of Erich Zann

The Music of Erich Zann
I really like this story. It plays on a lot of things I like about Lovecraftian fiction, like secret knowledge and unseen creatures. But as an amateur musician, I love the central idea in this story, that music, like a well developed language, can take on a power force, and even keep evil at bay. I think almost anyone can relate to the idea that music can move and influence us.
Lovecraft quite liked this story, feeling it didn't suffer from giving away too much, as he felt many of his other stories did. And it was fairly successful, even being published in a number of collections during HPL's lifetime. Nine years after it was first published it was even put in Dashiell Hammett's famous Creeps by Night collection.
Illustration by Jeff Powers © 2013

The story follows a young student, down on his luck who is forced to move to a strange part of an unknown French city and finds himself taking up residence with a mute German who stays up at all hours playing the strangest music on an old viol (often depicted as a violin in adaptations of this story, but according to Lovecraft's letters he is in fact referring to a specific kind of cello).
Location is once again an interesting element of this story. The city is not mentioned by name, but we know it is probably a large city in France, and quite possibly Paris, though its mere mention of the French language, French streets and a large river could just as easily have the story taking place in old New Orleans (something that makes a pretty cool idea from someone who lives in that city). What we do know is the name of the fictional street upon which the student found his residence, though it is also a place he cannot seem to remember how to find again. This place has fallen out of place and time and is lost even to scholars of the old Parisian streets. Interestingly enough, the street is named Rue d'Auseil. Now auseil is not a real French word, but may have come from Lovecraft's repurposing of au seuil which means 'at the threshold'. This may hint at the house sitting upon the threshold between ours and other dimensions. Further evidence for this comes from the mysterious description of the window in the German man, Erich Zann's, room, which he says looks out into the abyss.
This story is wonderfully mysterious, leaving so much to the imagination and answering none of the questions it brings up. Gone is the Lovecraft motif of the final paragraph that reveals all. In fact the guys over at HPPodcraft, toss around the idea that this is actually Lovecraft writing the story of Erich Zann's manuscript, but then throwing it away in favor of the atmospheric and mysterious story of the old German's neighbor. But with this story, some scholars have said, we get the first true Lovecraftian story. Now I have said that there are elements of what we consider Lovecraftian in many of the stories covered so far. Lovecraft, in his letters had even stated that he was prone to imitation and homage. Almost all the stories we have seen have been all or in part inspired by either Poe or Dunsany, but in this work we see all those elements and styles being pushed aside, letting the true form of Lovecraft out. And it will be stories of this flavor that we will experience numerous times in Lovecraft's more famous works like Pickman's Model.
If you want to read this chilling tale of mystery, you can check out the full text here: HPL's The Music of Erich Zann

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