Monday, 30 March 2009

3. H.P. Lovecraft - 'The Music of Erich Zann' (1922)

'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.'
(H.P. Lovecraft, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2001)

'The walls are much too thin...'
(The Walker Brothers, 'I Don't Want to Hear it Anymore'*, 1965)

Do all things radiophonic and Delia Derbyshire start here? Perhaps appositely, HPL was not a music lover. It seems unlikely, however, from the evidence of this weird tale, that he didn't have an affinity for futurist electronic sounds - at least in his dreams, where (prompted also by Poe) he envisaged a strangely convincing Parisian atmosphere. (p.376)

We are presented with a mystery, feverish in its blank, remorseless absurdity; pitiless in its lack of comfort or use of detective-story motifs. We are informed by the first-person narrator, a student of metaphysics appropriately enough, that he cannot retrace the ramshackle area of Paris that he used to reside in; that he is quite literally unable to find it again, in map or reality, despite having lived there. This uneasy reflection takes place at the start of the tale, prefacing his attempted explication of the unspeakable events; an old man, dumb and decrepit playing the strangest music, audible to him as they both occupy fifth floor apartments in adjoining buildings.

This Erich Zann is an eerie creation, seemingly driven by and solely existing for his music; Lovecraft is careful never to reveal the nature of Zann's obsession or affliction, but it clearly has to do with the low answering 'notes' heard and the horrifying chaotic nothingness perceived by the narrator from out of the high window in his climactic encounter with Zann: 'the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music [...] in savage and impenetrable darkness with chaos and pandemonium before me'. (p.51)

Along with this terrifying vastness, HPL presents more familiar terrors in descriptions of the writhing shape of Zann himself, whilst playing his viol, 'twisted like a monkey'. 'In his frenzied strains I could almost see shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of cloud and smoke and lightning.' (p.50) I presume that this description - which alludes to the classical - echoes Welsh purveyor of the Weird, Arthur Machen. The tale's final paragraph seems to me to invoke M.R. James; it concerns Zann's scribblings (in German), which may have explained the nature of the haunted man's affliction, and were lost: 'Despite my most careful searches and investigations, I have never since been able to find the Rue d'Auseil. But I am not wholly sorry; either for this or for the loss in undreamable abysses of the closely written sheets which alone could have explained the music of Erich Zann.' (p.52) Unlike many of MRJ's protagonists, this chap does not allow his morbid fascination to destroy him outright; a subtle ending, which seems to chide the scholarly obsessions of Jamesian protagonists.

I simply cannot draw the sort of grounded socio-political observations made regarding entries #1 and #2 in this ASSAD exercise. Whilst told in a relatively empirical fashion by the unnamed narrator, the world displayed is deliberately hermetic - society and fellowship are at a minimum, symbolised by the brittleness of the narrator's assumed 'friendship' with Zann. The outside world is merely gestured towards in the opening, with the narrator setting out his background - how he came to be there, and how he cannot get back to the Rue d'Auseil (which, as S.T. Joshi's excellent explanatory notes explain, was a perhaps deliberate use of French to indicate that EZ's room is at the threshold between the real and the unreal). As in another of HPL's stories I have read, 'The Tomb' (1917), there is no sense of shared interpretation or banal 'journey'; the events described simply defy any critical attempts to place limits upon them by interpreting - they exist on a different plane to 'reality' as we perceive it. 'The Music of Erich Zann' goes beyond the solitary Gothicism of 'The Tomb' and evokes the truly cosmic - another plane of existence. That Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop managed to bring this level of weirdness in sound to the living rooms of the masses should hardly undermine Lovecraft's achievement in crafting this uncanny, this unutterable THING...


* A majestically gloomy bedsit ballad to rival Leonard Cohen; written by Randy Newman and recorded by Dusty Springfield in 1969 and the Walker Brothers four years earlier on their ironically named Take It Easy... LP - with Scott in transcendent form. That vibraphone tolls as if all lonely lives are depending on it.

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