Tuesday Terror! The Music of Erich Zann by HP Lovecraft

The Devil has all the best tunes…

This story appears in the collection, The Gothic Tales of HP Lovecraft. Lovecraft is known for his long, verbose, weird fiction but he could do short, Gothic and scary with the best of them when he tried. This little story seems perfect to wake the fretful porpentine from hibernation…

The Music of Erich Zann
by HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

I have examined maps of the city with the greatest care, yet have never again found the Rue d’Auseil.

Our unnamed narrator was a student at the time of which he tells, in a city which is probably Paris although it isn’t named. His straitened finances force him to take a room in a ramshackle house in the Rue d’Auseil. Most of the other rooms are empty, but on his first night in the house, he hears strange music being played in the garret room above his own. On enquiring from the landlord, he learns the tenant of that room is Erich Zann, a strange, old, dumb viol-player.

Thereafter I heard Zann every night, and although he kept me awake, I was haunted by the weirdness of his music. Knowing little of the art myself, I was yet certain that none of his harmonies had any relation to music I had heard before; and concluded that he was a composer of highly original genius.

Resolving to make Zann’s acquaintance, the student stops him in the corridor and asks if he may listen while Zann plays. Grudgingly the old man agrees and takes the student to this room.

Its size was very great, and seemed the greater because of its extraordinary bareness and neglect. Of furniture there was only a narrow iron bedstead, a dingy washstand, a small table, a large bookcase, an iron music-rack, and three old-fashioned chairs. Sheets of music were piled in disorder about the floor. The walls were of bare boards, and had probably never known plaster; whilst the abundance of dust and cobwebs made the place seem more deserted than inhabited. Evidently Erich Zann’s world of beauty lay in some far cosmos of the imagination.

Illustration by Andrew Brosnatch, drawn for the reprint of the story in the May 1925 issue of Weird Tales.

But as time passes, the student comes to realise that there’s something very strange about Zann’s playing. When the student is in the room with him, he plays well but conventionally. However, when he’s alone and the student is hearing him from outside the room, the music becomes wild, with weird harmonies such as the student has never before imagined…

There in the narrow hall, outside the bolted door with the covered keyhole, I often heard sounds which filled me with an indefinable dread—the dread of vague wonder and brooding mystery. 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.

Then one night, the music grows so wild that the student is drawn to the old man’s door…

I heard the shrieking viol swell into a chaotic babel of sound; a pandemonium which would have led me to doubt my own shaking sanity had there not come from behind that barred portal a piteous proof that the horror was real—the awful, inarticulate cry which only a mute can utter, and which rises only in moments of the most terrible fear or anguish.

He finds the old man unconscious, and when he comes to, he agrees to tell the student the secret of the music. He sits at the table to write out his story, when suddenly the student becomes aware of music, but it’s coming from outside the window!

Zann leaps to his feet, grabs his viol and starts playing for all he’s worth…

It would be useless to describe the playing of Erich Zann on that dreadful night. It was more horrible than anything I had ever overheard, because I could now see the expression of his face, and could realise that this time the motive was stark fear…

* * * * * * *

Gosh! This woke the porpentine with a shriek! It has touches of Lovecraft’s famed weird tales, but mostly it’s a fairly traditional Gothic-style horror story. It’s brilliantly told, with the descriptive writing gradually bringing it up to a pitch of perfect terror. The old viol-player being dumb adds to the tension since he can’t quickly explain what’s going on, and the narrator’s inability to ever find the Rue d’Auseil again leaves the reader wondering if it was all his imagination; or is the street somehow part of another world hidden within this one into which the narrator had somehow strayed? As it reaches its crescendo, I swear to you that I actually gasped out loud!

So far I’ve read about half the tales in this collection and each one has been superb. I wish HPL had stuck to Gothic rather than creating his weird Cthulhu Mythos – for my taste, these short tales of sheer horror have far more impact. If you’d like to read this one online, here’s a link. But I think it’s safe to say already that I’ll be recommending the whole collection when I finish it.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a fretful porpentine!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * * * *

NB For the benefit of new readers since it’s the porpy’s first appearance for the season, the fretful porpentine reference comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine

So the Fretful Porpentine rating is for the scariness factor, whereas the Overall Rating is for the story’s quality.

* * * * * * *

39 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! The Music of Erich Zann by HP Lovecraft

  1. This sounds brilliant!! I’ve bookmarked the link to have a look at later, your review has me as fretful as the porpentine (who is certainly looking very fretful today). That strange wee beastie on Lovecraft’s lap also looks a bit put out, if you ask me… 😉

    • The porpentine has become a fixture around here! 😂Thank you! I started out with very mixed feelings about Lovecraft but he’s now become an essential part of the spooky season for me. Hope you enjoy him if you get a chance to read these… 😀

  2. Oh, I remember this one, FictionFan! It is deliciously scary, isn’t it? For me, anyway, the music tie-in was really appealing, as I’ve always loved music, and remember taking lessons as a child. And it’s a perfect choice to bring the porpy back! I like Lovecraft’s style in it, too.

    • Gave me proper shivers at the end, and the poor porpy is still quivering! Yes, I much prefer Lovecraft’s style in these stories than in his rambling weird fiction. And it’s so good to know he could actually do short when he chose! 😉

    • Thank you! I hadn’t either till three or four years ago, but he’s become a fixture in my spooky season reading now. And his Gothic stories are so much better (and shorter) than his weird fiction!

  3. How delighted I am to see the wee porpentine back again!! This tale sounds like one to be read with ALL the lights on, ha! I’ll have to come back and read it later, though, because I really must do a few things this morning. And if it made you gasp out loud, why, that’s a good enough recommendation for me!

    • I’m in major spooky reading mode this year, maybe because I didn’t read much horror last year. And the porpy is glad to be out of hibernation. This story is great – scary without gore, and short! Enjoy! 😀

  4. So glad the fretful porcupine is back and with such a great sounding tale too. As you say the lack of speech on the part of the viol player just adds to the tension and intrigue here. Sounds like one scary story indeed.

  5. Oh, man, I’ve been following you for years but never knew where the “fretful porpentine” came from! What a great bit of writing–thanks for adding it to this season opener. More scares to come; I can’t wait!

    • Ha – I have a tendency to forget that not everyone was around when I started doing these back in the dark ages, and won’t get the porpy reference. I have loads of great looking horror anthologies this year – should be fun! 😱😈

    • I hadn’t either till a few years ago and now he’s a fixture with me and the porpy! I do find these much better than the weird stuff – it’s all too long and every noun has at least four dramatic, hideous, overblown, blasphemous adjectives. The Gothic ones are short! 😀

    • It’s delightfully scary, isn’t it? Just the right amount! I’m going to be so steeped in horror by Hallowe’en I’ll be immune to even the worst ghostliness… 😀

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