Saturday, November 2, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 193: H. P. Lovecraft, The Music of Erich Zann (#189)

H. P. Lovecraft, "The Music of Erich Zann" (1922) from H. P. Lovecraft: Tales:

On one hand, "The Music of Erich Zann" is classic Lovecraft Mythos story: (1) a narrator who starts out by telling us that he has a fractured memory and other mental health issues; (2) the narrator gets involved in something mysterious--an expedition to the Antarctic, a strange inheritance from a quirky uncle, or, in this case, a strange house on a strange street where a strange viol player plays strange music late at night; (3) a final revelation of cosmic depth that is horrifying and alienating, involving some sense of Things beyond that are more basic to the universe than we are, puny humans.

But on the other hand, "The Music of Erich Zann" is considered something of an outlier by such a great Lovecraft scholar and enthusiast as S. T. Joshi, who writes that “it reveals a restraint in its supernatural manifestations (bordering, for one of the few times in his entire work, on obscurity), a pathos in its depiction of its protagonist, and a general polish in its language that Lovecraft rarely achieved in later years.”

Admittedly, the story doesn't end with the sea parting for Cthulhu--who gets described as something like a dragon, squid, and man--but with a sense of limitless dark beyond the window of Erich Zann's garret room, the highest spot on the mysterious Rue d'Auseil; and also with the wind whipping away the pages of Erich Zann's story--which we never learn. So I understand why Joshi says this story shows restraint. In that same vein, Lovecraft wrote of this story, "I like it for what it hasn’t more than for what it has.”

That said, this story does fit easily with Lovecraft's other works. A man who creates otherworldly art through some scary contact with the unknown. Isn't that almost "Pickman's Model"? A man who survives beyond the limit of death--well, can I introduce you to "Herbert West--Reanimator" and the man in the cold room of "Cool Air"? Even that limitless darkness with some whistling sound isn't entirely unknown in Lovecraft's other works; I would argue that this could be Azathoth.

I also think that we need to read "The Music of Erich Zann" alongside Lovecraft's Dreamland tales, which are pilfered liberally from Lord Dunsany's stories. That is, the whole set-up is more dreamlike than horrific: a man takes a room in a house on a street that doesn't exist in the city--where even the river smells weird. Instead of the horror invading our everyday worlds or of some lingering terror being unearthed where we live, the horrific here starts with the person wandering into some dream-world.

Lastly, I initially laughed when the narrator--a philosophy student--state that "my metaphysical studies had taught me kindness." Metaphysics doesn't really sound like the kind of philosophy to make one kind. Ethics, maybe, but metaphysics? But on reflection, I think this works in with this story and the cosmicism we find in Lovecraft's other stories: if the universe really is a cold and uncaring place, where the limitless dark is just outside our window--barely held back by our aesthetic attempts to combat it--then it follows that human kindness to one another is even more precious, no matter how unhelpful it ultimately is. Which puts in new light his unstoppable letter-writing and friend-gathering career, which dwarfs his fiction output tremendously.

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