“Music of Erich Zann, The“


“Music of Erich Zann, The“
   Short story (3,480 words); probably written in December 1921. First published in the National Amateur(March 1922); rpt. WT(May 1925) and WT(November 1934); first collected in O;corrected text in DH;annotated version in TD.
   The narrator has “examined maps of the city with the greatest of care,” but he cannot find the Rue d’Auseil, where he once dwelt as an “impoverished student of metaphysics” and heard the music of Erich Zann. Zann is a mute viol-player who played in a cheap theatre orchestra and dwelt in the garret apartment of a boarding-house run by “the paralytic Blandot”; the narrator, occupying a room on the fifth floor, occasionally hears Zann playing wild tunes featuring harmonies that seem to have no relation to any known style of music. One night he meets Zann in the hallway and asks to listen in while he plays; Zann accedes, but plays only ordinary music, although it is nevertheless affecting and apparently of his own composition. When the narrator asks Zann to play some of his weirder numbers, and even begins to whistle one of them, Zann reacts with horror and covers the narrator’s mouth with his hand. When the narrator attempts to look out the curtained window of the apartment, Zann prevents him from doing so. Later Zann has the narrator move to a lower floor so that he can no longer hear the music. One night, as the narrator comes to Zann’s door, he hears “the shrieking viol swell into a chaotic babel of sound” and later hears an “awful, inarticulate cry which only the mute can utter, and which rises only in moments of the most terrible fear or anguish.” Demanding entry, he is let in by a harried Zann, who manages to calm himself and writes a scribbled note saying that he will prepare “a full account in German of all the marvels and terrors which beset him.” An hour passes while Zann writes; then a strange sound seems to come from the curtained window: “…it was not a horrible sound, but rather an exquisitely low and infinitely distant musical note….” Zann immediately stops writing, picks up his viol, and commences to play with demoniac fury: “He was trying to make a noise; to ward something off or drown something out….” The glass of the window breaks, blowing out the candle and plunging the room into darkness; a sudden gust of wind catches up the manuscript and bears it out the window. As the narrator attempts to save it, he gains his first and last look out that lofty window, but sees “only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth.” The narrator runs into Zann in an effort to flee, encountering the mad player still playing mechanically even though he seems to be dead. Rushing from the building, he finds the outside world seemingly normal. But he has, from that time, been unable to find the Rue d’Auseil.
   HPL always considered the tale among his best, although in later years noted that it had a sort of negative value: it lacked the flaws—notably overexplicitness and overwriting—that marred some of his other works, both before and after. It might, however, be said that HPL erred on the side of underexplicitness in the very nebulous horror to be seen through Zann’s garret window. In referring to Zann’s instrument throughout the story as a “viol,” HPL appears to mean the stringed instrument played between the legs and shaped like a cello; the term is not a poeticism for violin. HPL confirms this when he refers to Zann as a “‘cellist” (HPL to Elizabeth Toldridge, [October 31, 1931?; ms., JHL]; that is, violoncellist.
   The story appears to be set in Paris. The French critic Jacques Bergier claimed to have corresponded with HPL late in the latter’s life and purportedly asked him how and when he had ever seen Paris in order to derive so convincing an atmosphere for the tale; HPL is said to have replied, “In a dream, with Poe” (Jacques Bergier, “Lovecraft, ce grand genie venu d’ailleurs,” PlaneteNo. 1 [October– November 1961]: 43–46). This story is probably apocryphal, as there is no evidence that Bergier corresponded with HPL. HPL himself stated, shortly after writing the story, “It is not, as a whole, a dream, though I have dreamt of steep streets like the Rue d’Auseil” (HPL to Frank Belknap Long, February 8, 1922; SL1.166–7). The word Auseildoes not exist in French (nor does Zannexist in German), but it has plausibly been asserted that the place name is meant to suggest the phrase au seuil(“at the threshold”)—that is, that both Zann’s room and his music are at the threshold between the real and the unreal. HPL knew only a smattering of French, but he could have come up with such an elementary coinage.
   The story was among the most frequently reprinted in HPL’s lifetime. Aside from the appearances listed above, it was included in Dashiell Hammett’s celebrated anthology, Creeps by Night(1931) and its various reprints (e.g., Modern Tales of Horror[1932]); it was reprinted in the Evening Standard (London) (24 October 1932), occupying a full page of the newspaper. It was to have appeared in an anthology from the Denis Archer firm, but HPL’s permission came too late to allow its inclusion. It was one of the first of HPL’s tales to be included in a textbook: James B.Hall and Joseph Langland’s The Short Story(1956).
   See John Strysik, “The Movie of Erich Zann and Others,” LS No. 5 (Fall 1981): 29–32; Donald R.Burleson, “‘The Music of Erich Zann’ as Fugue,” LS No. 6 (Spring 1982): 14–17; Robert M.Price, “Erich Zann and the Rue d’Auseil,” LS Nos. 22/23 (Fall 1990): 13–14; Carl Buchanan, “‘The Music of Erich Zann’: A Psychological Interpretation (or Two),” LSNo. 27 (Fall 1992): 10–13.

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