The Music of Erich Zann (1922) is considered by some to be one of Lovecraft’s best stories. It certainly is one of my favorites. It contains a number of elements that play to his strengths as an author, namely atmosphere, mysterious setting, and dreamlike imagery. S.T. Joshi remarks that The Music of Erich Zann was one of Lovecraft’s own favorites. It is relatively free of his typical flaws: verbosity, a tendency to explain too much about the horrors depicted, and excessive supernaturalism. But more importantly, the author demonstrates an affection and compassion for one of his characters: Erich Zann, the old man in the story. Pathos is not typically seen in Lovecraft’s work.
The story exhibits the haunting and disturbing unity of a nightmare, though the author later indicated that his idea was not based entirely on a dream. He did however report that he had dreamt of climbing steep streets like the ‘Rue d’Auseil’ of the story. Dream imagery and story ideas inspired by dreams are frequent in Lovecraft’s work—a feature that in my view brings a kind of coherence and focus to his better stories. L. Sprague De Camp mentions that Lovecraft was once asked how he was able to depict the atmosphere of Paris so well without ever having been there. Lovecraft replied that he had in fact been there in a dream, along with his mentor Edgar Allen Poe. (Joshi is less sure of the veracity of this report, which may be apocryphal. In the story, Lovecraft never identifies the setting as Paris.)
A dreamlike technique that Lovecraft uses in several of his stories is a subtle shift in the physical appearance of the landscape—terrain, architecture, lighting—to signal that the character has entered a kind of borderland or threshold, a ‘thin’ place where different worlds, dimensions or times intermingle. He uses this device effectively in He (1926), The Silver Key (1929) and The Festival (1925), among others. Characters wander a landscape that incrementally takes them back in time or to another reality.
The narrator in The Music of Erich Zann is an impoverished student of metaphysics. Like the author who created him, he suffers from poor mental and physical health. He locates an inexpensive apartment, but it is in a little known area of the city, “across a dark river”. Looking back on his time there, “it remains a humiliating fact that I cannot find the house, the street, or even the locality, where…I heard the music of Erich Zann.” He lives for awhile in a tall old house that is up the steep Rue d’Auseil, overlooking a darker area of the city. One crosses “a ponderous bridge of dark stone” over a river “odorous with evil stenches” to cobblestone streets inhabited by strangely quiet, very old people.
He befriends a fellow resident of the house, an old musician named Erich Zann. The old man is a very accomplished player of the viol, an instrument that resembles a cello. He is also mute and unable to easily communicate, aside from the odd melodies and harmonies with which he entertains his young guest. Mr. Zahn occupies the highest room in the house, and plays his instrument near an open window overlooking the city.
Interesting patterns recur in Lovecraft’s work. Readers familiar with his other short stories may wish to compare this story with He (1926), and The Strange High House In the Mist (1931). All three stories involve a climactic scene in which an older man schools a younger one in a room overlooking some sort of supernatural landscape. The ‘room with a view’ serves as a threshold between worlds, and it is a place where the intent is for secret knowledge to be transmitted from the older man to the younger one. To a certain extent, Cool Air (1928) also follows this pattern. It seems to matter in Lovecraft stories whether characters are ascending or descending to important locations in the story. When they ascend, the reason seems to be to acquire knowledge, wisdom or insight.
The pathetic old man is secretive and fearful, and his inability to speak amplifies the unshared terror he experiences when he plays his strange music. There is something in the sky outside his window, but he is either reluctant or unable to explain its nature to the younger man. There is an eerie suggestion that the elderly musician is actually playing a duo and not a solo—in a vain effort to keep this entity at bay. Near the end of the story he writes down what he knows, but before the student can read the notes, the explanation is sucked out the window during the final horrific confrontation with the darkness outside. The poignancy of the story seems to lie in the old man’s fear, loneliness and struggle to communicate. So much of our own peace of mind seems to depend on the knowledge we can share with each other through speech and writing.