Blind Read Series: H.P. Lovecraft; The Music of Erich Zann
“On the night I arrived I heard strange music from the peaked garret overhead, and the next day asked old Blandot about it. He told me it was an old German voil-player, a strange dumb man who signed his name Erich Zann, and who played evenings in a cheap theatre orchestra; adding that Zann’s desire to play in the night after his return from the theatre was the reason he had chosen this lofty and isolated garret room, whose single gable window was the only point on the street from which one could look over the terminating wall at the declivity and panorama beyond.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! I cannot tell you how excited I am to be discussing this short story! It is without a doubt my most favorite Lovecraft story to date, filled with creepy ambiance (brimming with classic, though augmented, Lovecraftian tropes) and a terrifying climax . This one is not to be missed!
We start, yet again, with our classic unreliable narrator. Everything seems above board with this gentleman except for the fact that he lived in an apartment on a road that he has since been unable to find. We can brush off the absurdism and take that as Lovecraftian madness, or we can take this story at just face value…an entertaining fiction the narrator weaves for us.
“I have examined maps of the city with the greatest care,” the narrator tells us, “yet have never again found the Rue d’Auseil.” We are transported to France, a brand new locale for a Lovecraft story. It’s a nice changeup from our New England home base, because we can now see that these types of events (which we saw on a much broader scale in The Call of Cthulhu) happen around the globe.
The narrator tells us that the French (possibly Parisian) alley “..was always shadowy along that river, as if the smoke of neighboring factories shut out the sun perpetually.” It also stank: “The river was…odorous with evil stenches which I have never smelt elsewhere...” These things in and of themselves are not indicators to anything particularly nefarious. Remember that Lovecraft was writing in the early 20th century and much of the poorer areas of the world had to deal with these types of issues. We were neck deep in an industrial revolution and laws were slim. There were factories which spouted smoke and exhaust with abandon, and rivers were usually run off for toilets. What Lovecraft is doing is just setting up the scene, much like he does in “The Dunwich Horror” by creating a space where the poorer people of the world deal with this kind of degradation that the rich never has to condescend to understand. These types of things just happen with more frequency in the poor areas because the poor doesn’t have any power or recourse to deal with them. So the rich can live in a sunny and perfumed estate, and the poor people have to deal with their smoggy and “odorous” runoff.
The narrator “had never seen another street as narrow and steep as the Rue d’Auseil.” It was “closed off to vehicles, consisting in several places of flights of steps, and ending at the top in a lofty ivied wall.”
The Rue d’Auseil is cut off from the world. It is dirty and difficult to access, but so far we’ve not seen anything really out of the ordinary. Until this sentence:
“The houses were tall, peaked-roofed, incredibly old, and crazily leaning backward, forward and sidewise. Occasionally an opposite pair, both leaning forward, almost met across the street like an arch...”
This is where we get Lovecraftian. Much like in “Dreams in the Witch House” architecture plays a large part in the mythos. Strange, non-Euclidean geometry in structures is an indication that it’s a location for a portal to the outside world. These types of places in Lovecraftian fiction are used as a terminus of power. The off-putting architecture means that magic is stronger in the rue d’Auseil and could potentially be a locus of summoning Elder beings.
After getting the description of the building and finding out that our narrator gains a flat on the fifth floor, we get the quote which opens this essay…our introduction to Erich Zann and what our narrator means when he calls Zann “dumb” is just a sobriquet for mute, a matter of much importance for the denouement of the story.
The narrator gains access to Zann’s apartment by being nice, and Zann plays him some music: “He did not employ the music-rack, but offering no choice and playing from memory, enchanted me for over an hour with strains I had never heard before; strains which must have been of his own devising…They were a kind of fugue, with recurrent passages of the most captivating quality, but to me were notable for the absence of any of the weird notes I had overheard from my room below on other occasions.”
So now we have evidence of not only architecture being odd and off-putting, but now music which is discordant. I was riveted when Lovecraft jumped into this realm. Music is known to open one’s mind, to help with memory, to assist with focus, even to repair parts of the brain. I am, in fact, listening to music right now as I write this. If we consider the power music can hold and that it can be used in conjunction with magic, this opens up whole new worlds within the cosmic horror field! It seems to me that Lovecraft is setting up that Zann is an old man who has experienced too much, and possibly had been part of some Cthulhu cult at one point in his life After reading The Call of Cthulhu we know how pervasive they are). He learned the music from them and is using it in some form or another that deals with these eldritch gods…but more on that soon.
When our narrator inquires about the discordant music, Zann glanced “...toward the lone curtained window, as if fearful of some intruder – a glace doubly absurd, since the garret stood high and inaccessible above all adjacent roofs, this window being the only point on the steep street… from which one could see over the wall at the summit.”
Ah and there it is. We have an alley that has strange non-Euclidean architecture, and a mute man (is he mute? Or has he seen things so terrible because of his “duty” that he can no longer speak? Is it something else?) playing strange, discordant music in a gambrel room which is the only room in the alley that can see over the wall to the city beyond. That window is always curtained. A diligent reader will tell immediately that this is going to be the…summit…of the story. The focus is too heavy on the window to not understand that something will come from that portal to beyond the wall.
Zann leaves with pleasantries, but when our narrator asks him to play some of the strange music he has heard late at night, Zann’s “...bony right hand reached out to stop my mouth and silence…” him. This reinforces the theory that Zann might not really be mute, but a gatekeeper that knows his voice may cause something to come through that curtained portal.
Zann shakes our narrators hand and he leaves as friends, but doesn’t “speak” to the narrator for some few days. Our narrator, intrigued by the man, listens at his door and hears the man’s cello wail.
“It was not that the sounds were hideous, for they were not; but that they held vibrations suggesting nothing on this globe of earth, and that at certain intervals they assumed a symphonic quality which I could hardly conceive as produced by one player.”
The narrator eventually gets in and talks to Zann and gets him to write down his experience. Over an hour the old man writes before the narrator “half fancied I heard a sound myself; though it was not a horrible sound, but rather an exquisitly low and infinitiely distant musical note, suggesting a player in one of the neighboring houses, or in some abode beyond the lofty wall over which I had never been able to look.”
Zann, terrified, “seized his viol (cello), and commenced to rend the night with the wildest playing I had ever heard from his bow save when listening at the barred door.”
and “It was more horrible than anything I had ever overheard, because I could now see the expression on his face, and could realise that this time the motive was stark fear.”
And “In his frenzied strains I could almost see shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning.”
Then “The shutter rattled more loudly, unfastened, and commenced slamming against the window. Then the glass broke shiveringly under the persistent impacts, and the chill wind rushed in, making the candles sputter and rustling the sheets of paper on the table where Zann had begun to write out his horrible secret.”
A gust comes in through the window and Zann plays furiously, his eyes wide and terrified. The narrator looks to the window where he “might see the slope beyond the wall, and the city outspread beneath… but only blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth.”
The cello brays behind him and the candles flicker out leaving them in pitch. The narrator flails, trying to figure out what’s going on and “Suddenly out the blackness the madly sawing bow struck me, and I knew I was close to the player.” but when he finally gets a glimpse of Zann, he reaches out to the madly playing musician and “I felt of the still face, the ice-cold, stiffened, unbreathing face whose glassy eyes bulged uselessly into the void.”
The story comes to a close as our narrator flees the scene.
So what does it all mean? Instantly I think of two things and both make for a spectacular story. The first is that Zann died while doing everything he could to stop whatever eldritch horror was trying to make it’s way through the portal and his body was kept animate by whatever secret drive he had written into the lost note to the narrator (or by whatever task he was given by an otherworldly being).
The second, and the version I like better, is that Zann was dead all along. The narrator is unreliable and insane and imagines the whole thing. He has a psychotic episode and that’s why he is never able to find Rue d’Auseil again. That’s why Zann never spoke. That’s why the papers Zann wrote blew away and the narrator never got to read them. That’s why the room was otherworldly. Zann was a corpse all along and everything else is in the narrators head. This version is just so deliciously creepy that I cant help but to prefer it.
But there is a third possibility. This entire story could have taken place in the dreamlands. The rue d’Auseil is not on any map because it doesn’t exist in the waking world, only in the mysterious dreamlands. It’s also fairly reminiscent to “The Strange High House in the Mist” because, there too, we have a caretaker guarding a house against something evil and huge just outside it.
In any case this is a fast paced, unique tale that’s perfect for anyone looking to get into Lovecraft.
Which version do you prefer?
Join me next week as we discuss “The Picture in the House”!
If anyone knows the truth of this please leave a comment! I researched and tried to find rue d’Auseil and even tried to do a translation, but was unable to uncover anything as to it’s meaning. This may be another indication of Lovecraft intending this to be a dreamland tale, but it could also be him trying to expand his own universe. We spend quite a bit of time in New England, but there are a few tales which we go out into the world and in every locale Lovecraft creates fake cities, or roads, or houses, or geographic features. We know that Lovecraft wanted other writers to take his stories beyond what he created… maybe this was his way of creating a parallel universe that’s very similar to ours, but has these eldritch truths which we cannot see in our world. Maybe he was trying to build out enough to ensure his legacy. To ensure his Yog-Sothothery. What do you think?