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Literature / The Music of Erich Zann

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"The Music of Erich Zann" is a 1922 short story by H. P. Lovecraft, and considered by the man himself to be among his best work.

The story is narrated by a nameless university student who is forced to take up residence in an apartment building on a peculiar street called "Rue d'Auseil". One of the only other tenants is a quiet old man by the name of Erich Zann. At night, the old man plays his viol, and the student becomes fascinated by the strange, almost indescribable melodies he produces. Convinced the man is some sort of musical genius, the student tries to get to know the old man. Eventually, he comes to realize that something more sinister is afoot, and all is not right with Rue d'Auseil.

The story was adapted into video game format by Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw in 2019 as one of his Dev Diary projects.

Tropes present in this story include:

  • Bizarrchitecture: The houses that populate Rue d'Auseil fall under this category. "The houses were tall, peaked-roofed, incredibly old, and crazily leaning backward, forward, and sidewise. Occasionally an opposite pair, both leaning forward, almost met across the street like an arch; and certainly they kept most of the light from the ground below. There were a few overhead bridges from house to house across the street."
  • Brown Note: Zann's otherworldly music is able to keep terrifying eldritch monsters at bay for a time... but it may also be summoning them.
  • The City Narrows: The Rue d'Auseil seems to be a very dilapidated, low-income neighbourhood, populated almost exclusively by the elderly.
  • City with No Name: The story is set in an unspecified, rather hilly, city, where French seems to be the most commonly-spoken language and there's a major university. Most readers assume it's Paris, although Paris is a relatively flat city. Lovecraft may also have been thinking of Quebec City, which does have the steep topography to match the story, and which would become a favourite travel destination of his years later. But ultimately, like so much else in this story, it's impossible to say for certain.
  • Cool Gate: The window to Eric Zann's apartment seems to lead to another world, represented by a black abyss. And Erich Zann is trying to ensure that anything living in that world stays there.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: The narrator hints that he has had a few mental health issues in the past, which makes him a bit more sympathetic to Zann's own eccentricities and compulsions.
  • Gonk: Zann is described as having a grotesque, satyr-like face.
  • Hostile Weather: At the climax of the story, a massive storm blows open the window of Zann's apartment. However, when the narrator eventually flees the building, he realizes that it's a perfectly calm, clear night. Whatever bad weather there was only existed through Zann's window.
  • The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday: Despite years of searching, the narrator is never able to find Rue d'Auseil again.
  • Magic Music: It's very clear that Zann's viol-playing is the key to whatever supernatural events are going on in the story.
  • Meaningful Name: "Rue d'Auseil" is likely derived from the French "au seuil", meaning "at the threshold", fitting its mysterious, otherworldly qualities.
  • No Name Given: The narrator remains unnamed.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The more the narrator (and, by extension, the reader) learns, the less he understands. Just what the hell is Rue d'Auseil? What is lurking in the abyss outside Zann's window? How did Zann die and how was he still able to play the viol? Hell, we don't even get much in the way of a description of what Zann's music sounds like, because, after all, it's hard to describe strange music in text.
  • The Speechless: Erich Zann is mute. Even when he tries to express himself in written form, he has trouble, because the only language he and the narrator seem to have in common is French, but Zann's grasp of it is "execrable".
  • The Un-Reveal: Zann begins writing down an explanation of what he's doing and why but is interrupted, and many of the pages are blown out the window by a storm. We never learn what we was writing.