Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories. Today we’re looking at “The Music of Erich Zann,” written in December 1921 and first published in the March 1922 issue of National Amateur. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.
The narrator has never again been able to find the Rue d’Auseil—indeed, has never found anyone who’s even heard of it. But when he was a student, young and poor and sickly, he rented a room there. It ought not be so difficult to find it, for it had some very singular characteristics.
The street is very narrow and steep—in parts, it actually becomes a staircase—and paved variously with stone slabs, cobblestones, and bare earth. Houses lean in, sometimes almost making an arch over the street. At the very end is a tall, ivy-covered wall.
The narrator, in his youth, takes a room in the third house from the top of the street, on the 5th floor. He hears music from the garret above: a viol playing wild, strange harmonies unlike anything he’s heard before. His landlord tells him that Erich Zann, a mute German musician, rents the top floor.
He encounters Zann on the staircase and begs to listen to his music. Zann’s rooms are barren, with a single curtained window. He plays, but none of the wild harmonies heard from below. All the while he glances at the window with apparent fear.
The narrator attempts to look out the window—the only one on the Rue d’Auseil high enough to have a view over the wall of the fabulously lit city beyond. But Zann, frightened and angry, pulls him back, and motions him to sit as he writes. His note apologizes for his nerves, but begs the narrator to accommodate the old man’s eccentricities. He hates to have anyone hear his original compositions. He didn’t know they could be heard from below, and will pay for the narrator to live on a lower floor—although he promises to invite him up sometimes.
Once the narrator has removed to the third floor, he finds that Zann’s eagerness for his company vanishes—indeed, the old man makes every effort to avoid him. The narrator’s fascination with Zann’s music continues, and he sometimes sneaks up and presses his ear to the door where he can hear the evidence of the man’s genius. It’s difficult to believe that a single viol could produce such otherworldly, symphonic tunes.
One night the music of the viol swells into a chaotic pandemonium, broken by Zann’s inarticulate scream. The narrator knocks and calls out. He hears Zann stumble to the window and close it, then fumble with the door. The man appears genuinely delighted and relieved at the narrator’s presence, and clutches at his coat. He draws him inside, writes him a swift note, then sits to write further. The first note implores him to wait while Zann writes a detailed account of the marvels and horrors that he has encountered—an account that presumably explain the mystery behind his music.
An hour later, still writing, Zann stops and stares at the window. A single unearthly note sounds in the distance. Zann drops his pencil, picks up his viol, and commences the wildest music the narrator has ever heard from him. It’s clear, watching his face, that his motive is nothing other than the most dreadful fear. Zann plays louder and more desperately, and is answered with another, mocking note.
The wind rattles the shutters, slams them open, shatters the window. It whips into the room and carries Zann’s scribbled confession out into the night. The narrator chases after, hoping to recover them—and finds himself staring not over the city, but into interstellar space alive with inhuman motion and music. He staggers back. He attempts to grab Zann and pull him out of the room, but the man is caught up in his desperate playing and will not move. At last the narrator flees—out of the room, out of the house, down the Rue d’Auseil, and at last across the bridge into the ordinary city. The night is windless, the sky full of ordinary stars.
He has never since been able to find the Rue d’Auseil—and does not entirely regret either this failure, or the loss of whatever terrible epiphanies might have been offered by Zann’s lost confession.
What’s Cyclopean: Tonight’s musical selection is cyclopean-free. We do have some very nice insanely whirling bacchanals for your listening pleasure.
The Degenerate Dutch: Ethnic backgrounds are described fairly straightforwardly—but both Zann’s muteness and the landlord’s paralysis seem intended as indications of the Rue d’Auseil’s inhuman nature. Awkward.
Mythos Making: Ever heard of something that plays mad, unearthly music in the center of interstellar space? Seems like it rings a bell—or a mad, piping flute.
Libronomicon: No one’s sure why, but the music section of Miskatonic’s library has really good security.
Madness Takes Its Toll: The narrator implies, but doesn’t state outright, that he may not have been entirely in his right mind during his sojourn on the Rue d’Auseil. And Zann’s music—though notably not Zann—is repeatedly described as “mad.”
When Zann sits down to write of the wonders and terrors he’s encountered, you think you know where you are—now, as in “The Mound,” we’ll switch to the testimony of a direct witness to the horror, and leave the narrator hoping desperately that he’s read the ravings of a madman. Instead the memoirs go right out the window, along with the usual Lovecraftian Tropes.
The loss of any detailed explanation—whether fantastic or science fictional—isn’t the only way this story stands out. The narrator knows the dangers of scholarship and knowledge: certainly something about his metaphysical studies has driven him to the Rue d’Auseil. But this is a story about the temptations and dangers of art. The narrator confesses himself ignorant of music, and Zann is clearly a genius—of what sort, let’s leave unsaid—but they are both swept up in its power, as creator and as audience.
Now I know you’re all asking yourselves: what’s an Auseil? It’s not any French word. It’s uncertain whether that reflects Lovecraft’s ignorance, or a play on “assail,” or whether there’s someone of the name “Auseil” after whom the street is named. Though it’s intriguing to speculate what type of person gets a street like that named after them.
What’s actually in that abyss that Zann guards? Lovecraft seems to have made a deliberate attempt not to fully reveal his horrors here. But this isn’t the only time he portrays mad music in the cold of space. Is this one of the familiar horrors of the Mythos? Or are the similarities only coincidence? If one accepts the former, one is left with the fascinating question of how Zann attracted Azathoth’s attention—and what kind of tenuous power he’s managed to acquire against that primal force.
The street itself is in some ways more intriguing than the view out the window. Its steepness and strangeness bar ordinary traffic. It’s a liminal zone, not fully part of the ordinary city, nor quite fallen into the abyss that lies beyond its crowning wall. It’s inhabited by the aged, the sickly, the disabled. Are these meant to be people who also don’t quite fit in either realm? If not, why not? The modern mind isn’t entirely comfortable with that type of relegation—but that doesn’t prevent modern society from likewise pushing such people to its edges. And the narrator has an insider’s view of the street rather than an outsider’s: poor and suffering from the psychological and physical effects of his studies, he’s not in a position to judge his neighbors and for the most part doesn’t attempt to do so.
Zann falls into the same interstitial space. We don’t know whether he became mute as a result of staring too long into the abyss, or whether he was able to contact the abyss because he was forced to find new ways of communicating.
As I read through these stories, I’m finding some of the knee-jerk bigotry I expected—but also some surprising moments of self-awareness. I’m not entirely sure where this story falls on that spectrum.
For a second week, by chance or some mocking intervention of the Outer Gods, our story features a German character. How different from Karl, paragon of Prussians, is poor Erich Zann, diminutive and bent and satyr-featured, of no more respectable a profession than theater fiddler, afflicted with muteness and manifold nervous tics. Yet there are crucial similarities. Both men are stranded in extraordinary circumstances. Both hear the music of outré spheres. Both attempt to leave accounts of their experiences. Karl’s bottled manuscript finds readers, but it’s necessarily truncated, missing the end he meets when he’s gone beyond means of communication with his fellow—living—men. Zann fares worse: His narrative is whisked beyond human ken in its entirety.
I register no premonitory tremors of the Cthulhu Mythos here, as I did in “The Temple.” “Music’s” poetic tone and pervasive nostalgia put it more in the Dunsanian range of Lovecraft’s influence-spectrum. The Dreamlands echo in its uncanny strains, and I wonder if the Rue d’Auseil isn’t a point of departure akin to the Strange High House that’s Kingport’s most charming landmark.
Central to this story is one of my favorite fantasy tropes, the place that is sometimes there, sometimes gone beyond rediscovery. Which brings us to our narrator, who is not Erich Zann, for then Lovecraft could not fairly have concealed the mysteries of his music. Instead we get an unnamed student of metaphysics, attending an unnamed university in a city I could have sworn was Paris; rereading, I see that Lovecraft avoids naming the city, too. There are boulevards, however, and theaters, and the lights burn all night, as one would expect in that metropolis. At the end of his meager resources, our student happens upon exceptionally cheap accommodations in a precipitous street but a half hour’s walk from the university. Or perhaps there’s a price as steep as the climb to be paid for his room and board.
The most striking feature of the Rue d’Auseil, this read, was how it’s a haven (or last resort) for the damaged. The narrator tells us his physical and mental health were gravely disturbed throughout his residence. Though the phrasing is ambiguous, I’m assuming he brought at least some of his ailments with him. All the inhabitants are very old. The landlord Blandot is paralytic. Zann is bent and mute. The ancient house in which the narrator lives is itself “tottering,” and other houses lean “crazily” in all directions, while the paving is “irregular,” the vegetation “struggling” and grayed. In fact, the only resident who’s described without reference to great age or sickness is the “respectable upholsterer” who has a room on the third floor, and any respectable person who’d deign to live in the Rue d’Auseil must have something wrong with him. It’s no place for the hale and hearty. In fact, I bet the hale and hearty could never find it or be aware of its existence.
It could be simplistic to view the Rue as a mere (if complex) metaphor for debility or madness, a diseased state of mind. Bump it up a fantastic step: It’s a place only the ailing can enter, prepared for the passage across the shadowy river and up the narrow cobbled streets by their suffering. They see things differently. They have altered sympathies, as in the narrator who says that his own sickness makes him more lenient toward the strange Zann. He also says that metaphysical study has made him kind—broadened his perceptions perhaps, opened his mind to less common conceptions of the universe?
Someone once told me, attributing the idea to Dostoevsky, that even if only the mad can see ghosts, that doesn’t mean the ghosts aren’t real. (Dostoevsky or ghost fans, point me in the direction of the exact quote, if it exists beyond the Rue d’Auseil!) My own idea here being that a certain degree of madness or (more neutrally) altered or unconventional consciousness might be a passport to the Rue.
The Rue itself appears to be a way station to wilder destinations, to which only a few may ever find passage while the rest of the “candidates” wither away, caught between the mundane and the beyond-places. Only one room on the street has a window that overlooks the high wall at its summit, and Zann is its current occupant and both terrified by and jealous of the privilege. What puts Zann in this position? He’s a genius, able not only to hear the music of the spheres but to give it an earthly-unearthly voice. Music is his voice, after all, since he cannot speak. Our metaphysician narrator may be another candidate for the top spot—clearly he’s drawn by music that’s the acoustic equivalent of Lovecraft’s non-Euclidian geometries, and by that tantalizing curtained window. So much drawn that he pauses, even in the climactic emergency, to finally look out.
To see what? Blackness and pandemonium and chaos, “unimagined space alive with motion and madness and having no semblance to anything on earth.”
Cool. So cool. Except maybe for whatever it is that’s been responding to Zann’s playing, that has rattled the curtained window, that gives the narrator a chill brush in the dark just before he flees the house and the Rue d’Auseil. Was his giving in to fear at this point equivalent to a failed audition, and the reason why he can never find the Rue again? What’s certain is that he semi-regrets his loss both of the place and of the narrative Zann was writing before weirdly sentient winds sucked it away (fore-echoes of the Elder Things!) He keeps searching for the Rue, and if he’s not “wholly sorry” for his losses, that means he’s not wholly glad, either. The terror and lure of the weird, yet again.
Join us next week for an allegory about the dangers of water pollution (or not), in “The Color Out of Space.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She bakes excellent chocolate peanut butter brownies, if she does say so herself.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available June 24, 2014 from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.