“The Music of Erich Zann” first published in The National Amateur, March 1922.
This is the the seventh entry in my read through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.
Lovecraft is far from his usual New England haunts or the psychedelic world of the Dreamlands, as this story takes place in what seems to be Bohemian Paris. He does a good job of evoking the world of impoverished students and tortured artists. It's not scary, as such, but has a fine, febrile atmosphere that builds to a classic Lovecraftian freakout.
HPL rated this one among his best, according to An H P Lovecraft Encyclopedia, and it was the most frequently reprinted in his lifetime. Joshi notes that Lovecraft's appreciation of it shifted over the years, until he felt it that “it had a sort of negative value: it lacked the flaws – notably over-explicitness and over-writing – that marred some of his work before and after.”
Joshi asks if HPL erred to far on the side of under-explicitness, but I quite like the ambiguous nature of the supernatural threat. The suggestive atmosphere is never quite broken, which lends proceeding a nice edge of madness.
This story is kind of unique in Lovecraft's output, but highly influential in its way, I think. It looks the source for a couple of HPL's notable heirs, Thomas Ligotti and Jeff Vandermeer. Both those writers have addressed artists and composers as the source of cosmic horror, and many of their stories have same atmosphere of fin de siecle urban Bohemia – artists and models, actors, performers, composers of operas or masters of puppet shows. It's there in China Miélville too, in the cast of characters in Perdido Street Station and perhaps also in the superimposed cities of Besźel.
In the twenties, of course, Paris was the centre of the avant garde world, a magnetic for those of an artistic and decadent nature. Lovecraft's near-contemporary Henry Miller (born 1891) was living in in poverty, hanging out with Anais Nin and similar international ne'er do wells. I wonder if Lovecraft had any of this in mind? He wasn't much of a fan of modernist art and literature, but the cliché of Bohemian Paris must have been well established by then. In fact, I was watching An American in Paris on telly the other day and it occurred to me that this would have been a great scene, danced by Gene Kelly to music by Stravinsky.
Next up "The Lurking Fear".