A haunted fiddler and a grotesque painter / More Lovecraft

There have been a couple of posts dedicated to H.P Lovecraft’s writings on this blog previously (namely on Dagon and The Outsider). I’d like to focus on another few short stories that I’ve enjoyed recently from Lovecraft. It made sense to talk about both of these short stories within one post. Both stories deal with a form of art (Zann’s music and Pickman’s…er, well, art) as a medium to interact with the cosmic horrors with are so characteristic of Lovecraft. Yet how much Lovecraft chooses to unveil to the reader is what separates these two excellent pieces of horror writing.

The Music of Erich Zann

The tale follows a university student of who due to poor finances is forced to take a room in a tall tottering building on a mystery street he has never encountered before, the Rue d’Auseil. Here he becomes aware of a lodger above his room, on the very top floor of the building, who plays strange string music late at night. Intrigued by the weirdness of the music, the student endevaours to meet with and listen to the mysterious lodger above. The owner of the house reveals the musician is an elderly German viol-player named Erich Zann, who is a mute and cannot speak.

One day the student meets Erich Zann on the stairs, and informs him he would like to be present when he next plays his viol. The elderly gentleman begrudgingly accepts, and upon entering the unkept roof room, Zann begins skilfully playing, sans the weird tones that he had overheard the night previous. The student attempts to mimic these strange harmonies, only for Zann to stop him in a silent fit of anger and fright, whilst casting nervous glances towards the window – the only window high enough in the Rue d’Auseil that casts a view over the entire city and looks down on the rue d’Auseil itself. The narrator walks to the window to get a glimpse of the view but Zann physically stops him, then calms himself and explains his eccentric and unfriendly actions by writing a note, which also states he can not play these weird melodies in front of anyone. He also cannot allow others to hear these strange pieces, so insists to upgrade the student to a different room further below the top floor, covering the extra costs.

However the student is now too curious by the old mans playings, and takes to listening on a step outside his door at night at the bewildering skill and fascinatingly weird music. One evening he hears the “shrieking viol swell into a chaotic babel of sound”, followed by a cry from the mute Zann. He knocks on the door, concerned for the man, who lets him in looking clearly shaken and relieved to have company. He hurriedly shuts the open window,  issues a quick note asking the narrator to stay with him while he writes down everything to explain the bizarre circumstances, and in silence begins to furiously scribble away for over an hour. Eventually he is interrupted by a distant noise coming from outside the window, and the fear is clear on Zann’s face. He leaps up and plays his viol furiously, louder, more frantic and more otherworldly than ever before. Outside a howling night wind rattles, with shadows and flashes appearing from beyond the window and there is pandemonium both inside and out.

“Louder and louder, wilder and wilder, mounted the shrieking and whining of that desperate viol. The player was dripping with an uncanny perspiration and twisted like a monkey, always looking frantically at the curtained window….And then I thought I heard a shriller, steadier note that was not from the viol; a calm, deliberate, purposeful, mocking note from far away in the West.”

The narrator suggests Zann is trying to ward something away, something that seems to be coming from the window. The shutters outside crash furiously, smashing the glass and a cold wind rushes into the room, snatching Zann’s recently written explanation out into the night. The narrator attempts to gather them but fails, and finds himself finally looking out of the window of Zann’s apartment. Expecting to see the small lights of the city below, what he sees instead he can hardly explain or comprehend. It appears to be a vast, black abyss – almost certainly another dimension, with its inhuman shapes and unknown sounds. Astounded and terrified, he attempts to leave with Zann, but the musician is fixed to the spot, rigid in sheer terror. The narrator escapes out of the house, down the street and into the safety of the city, where he notes that it is a calm, bright evening.

“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.”

Lovecraft himself was particularly proud of The Music of Erich Zann and considered it one of his best works. He found it did not suffer from overwriting and over describing the vivid horrors that he felt plagued much of his work. The horror the narrator finds behind the curtain is certainly downplayed in this piece, compared to the usual grotesque abominations that Lovecraft describes (see the next story Pickman’s Model, for a prime example), with horrific eyes and slimy skin and teeth and tentacles. The climax of the story as Lovecraft describes it:

“Yet when I looked from that highest of all gabled windows, looked while the candles spluttered and the insane viol howled with the night-wind, I saw no city spread below, and no friendly lights gleaming from remembered streets, but only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth. And as I stood there looking in terror, the wind blew out both the candles in that ancient peaked garret, leaving me in savage and impenetrable darkness with chaos and pandemonium before me, and the daemon madness of that night-baying viol behind me.”

Personally, I feel Lovecraft has if anything underwritten the horrors the narrator and Zann are experiencing. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy it, and indeed there is something haunting and unsettling in the vague vastness that is hinted at.

I also want to discuss the setting in more detail. The city in which the story takes place is not named but it is certainly French (Paris seems likely), but the Rue d’Auseil has its own unnerving presence. It may not be as immediately horrifying as Innsmouth or the various gothic castles, crypts and temples Lovecraft has used before to chill us, but the opening statement of “I have examined maps of the city with the greatest care, yet have never again found the Rue d’Auseil” is enough to pique our interest. Along with its physical description of ‘irregular’ paving being overtaken by ‘struggling greenish-grey vegetation’, its ‘incredibly old’ housing which seems to slant madly in all directions, being freakishly narrow and steep (“it was almost a cliff, closed to all vehicles”), we also are given an insight into the inhabitants. The old, the silent, the broken and weak. The only physical description we are given of the landlord Blandot is that he is paralysed. So why is the narrator able to exist in the Rue d’Auseil? He himself states that his “health, physical and mental” were poor at the time of finding this place. He is not a separate outsider witnessing these inhabitants – he is one of them. And the same goes for Zann. Did he become mute from his knowledge and time spent near the abyss? Or did his inability to speak allow him to use his musical talent to uncover and communicate with this phenomena? The latter seems more likely if physical or mental weakness is required to reach the Rue d’Auseil.

There is no exact translation for d’auseil, but it has been suggested that Lovecraft was aiming for the French phrase ‘au seuil” which translates to ‘at the threshold’. Perhaps this street is ‘at the threshold’ separating the world of the living as we know it, from something altogether unwholesome, cosmic, bizarre, completely unknown and incomprehensible.

Pickman’s Model

Here the narrator, a man named Thurber is retelling his experiences to a friend in a tavern, of an acquaintance who has recently gone missing; Richard Upton Pickman, an extraordinarily gifted painter, whose works and grotesque art have lead to him being expelled from the Boston Art Club and shunned by his fellow artists. Thurber however, states “Morbid art doesn’t shock me, and when a man has the genius Pickman had I feel it an honour to know him, no matter what direction his work takes.” He becomes closer to Pickman, and after a long conversation discussing the dark history, hidden cellars and networks of tunnels in the surrounding areas, Pickman invites him along to his studio in Newbury Street – a location right in the centre of the dirtiest, oldest and crumbling part of the district.

After following Pickman down several alleyways they arrive at his studio, and Thurber enters with an excited apprehension. What the narrator sees shocks him to the very core; there is a horror that Pickman captures in his paintings that seems unbelievable and unlike anything he has seen before, which shocks and disgusts him. Yet he cannot help but admire the genius and talent that Pickman so clearly has for bringing such monstrosities to life.

“The man was not a fantaisiste or romanticist at all- he did not even try to give us the churning, prismatic ephemera of dreams, but coldly and sardonically reflected some stable, mechanistic, and well-established horror- world which he saw fully, brilliantly, squarely, and unfalteringly.”

Continuing on down to the cellar, they walk past an old disused well, covered by a heavy disc of wood. Thurber shivers at the thought of their previous discussion on the rumours of what may move about below the ground. Pickman’s masterpiece is located through a door into the main room of the cellar, and Thurber is confronted with a painting more awful and ghastly than any he had set his eyes on previously; he screams as he takes in the unfinished, large portrait of a demonic creature seemingly eating a human victim. After this dizzying display of horror, Thurber recalls:

“Pinned with a thumb-tack to a vacant part of the canvas was a piece of paper now badly curled up- probably, I thought, a photograph from which Pickman meant to paint a background as hideous as the nightmare it was to enhance. I reached out to uncurl and look at it, when suddenly I saw Pickman start as if shot.”

It appears the narrator’s screams have stirred something, as echoes sound below them, sourced from the well in the next room. Pickman draws a revolver and exits the studio into the main cellar with the well, closing the door behind him. There is a commotion, squawks and squeaks, thuds and clatters. The revolver is fired, all six rounds emptying the chamber. After the shots ring out, Pickman re-enters, reassuring the narrator that they were just large rats. (‘The deuce knows what they eat, Thurber,’ Pickman grins menacingly).Pickman then escorts Thurber out of the studio, back into the alleyway and leads him to back to a half-familiar street. Deeply shaken by what he has experienced, he reaches into his pocket and discovers the piece of paper he must have removed from the canvas before they were startled by the rats. The true horror of Pickman’s paintings hit Thurber, as he realises this piece of paper is actually a photograph not of a background for his masterpiece, but of the actual subject. These monsters that Pickman paints are not from his imagination, but are real and hide beneath us!

Upon this shocking revelation, we understand why at the start of the tale Thurber explains how he now has a deep loathing of cellars and a phobia of what lurks beneath.The shocking final paragraph (quoted below) is shocking in what it implies:

“Well – that paper wasn’t a photograph of any background, after all. What it showed was simply the monstrous being he was painting on that awful canvas. It was the model he was using- and its background was merely the wall of the cellar studio in minute detail. But by God, Eliot, it was a photograph from life!”

Does Richard Pickman merely happen upon these instances? Or does he lure innocent victims to appease these monsters and in turn photographs these awful scenes which he then paints?

The writing style used is colloquial, situated in a pub, a tale being relaying to a friend. The interjections from Eliot are noted but go unheard – Thurber is frantic and needs Eliot to listen to what he has to say. A typical example is quoted below:
“Now, Eliot, I’m what the man in the street would call fairly ‘hard-boiled,’ but I’ll confess that what I saw on the walls of that room gave me a bad turn. They were his pictures, you know – the ones he couldn’t paint or even show in Newbury Street- and he was right when he said he had ‘let himself go.’ Here- have another drink- I need one anyhow!”

See the use of his friends name, as if in conversation, the use of colloquialisms such as ‘hard-boiled’, and interjecting the story with actions from the tavern by getting them another round of drinks. Thurber, despite being in a safe environment, far away from the vanished Pickman and his works and in the company of a close and trusted friend, is still shaken up at the experience.

I liked (is that the right word?) how Lovecraft manages to capture and conjure a horror in his descriptions of paintings. I’ve seen paintings that give me the creeps – yes, including those clichéd portraits whose eyes seem to follow you about the room, but am struggling to think of anything awful enough that would make me gasp, or feel queasy. Yet here the narrator trembles, gasps, feels faint, even screams! upon encountering the many pieces of work, both finished and unfinished, hanging from walls or stood on easels.

“There’s no use in my trying to tell you what they were like, because the awful, the blasphemous horror, and the unbelievable loathsomeness and moral foetor came from simple touches quite beyond the power of words to classify.” Upon some descriptions we dread to visualise what could be sprawled on these cursed canvases.“These figures were seldom completely human, but often approached humanity in varying degree. Most of the bodies, while roughly bipedal, had a forward slumping, and a vaguely canine cast. The texture of the majority was a kind of unpleasant rubberiness. Ugh! I can see them now! Their occupations – well, don’t ask me to be too precise. They were usually feeding- I won’t say on what….Nothing was blurred, distorted, or conventionalized; outlines were sharp and lifelike, and details were almost painfully defined. And the faces!”

“There was a study called ‘Subway Accident,’ in which a flock of the vile things were clambering up from some unknown catacomb through a crack in the floor of the Boston Street subway and attacking a crowd of people on the platform.” 

There were countless others showing “any number of cellar views, with monsters creeping in through holes and rifts in the masonry and grinning as they squatted behind barrels or furnaces and waited for their first victim to descend the stairs.”

Pickman’s masterpiece, located in the cellar, is described in vivid detail, and Lovecraft saves all his verbose and extravagant description for it:

“It was a colossal and nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes, and it held in bony claws a thing that had been a man, gnawing at the head as a child nibbles at a stick of candy. Its position was a kind of crouch, and as one looked one felt that at any moment it might drop its present prey and seek a juicier morsel. But damn it all, it wasn’t even the fiendish subject that made it such an immortal fountain- head of all panic- not that, nor the dog face with its pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose, and drooling lips. It wasn’t the scaly claws nor the mould-caked body nor the half-hooved feet- none of these, though any one of them might well have driven an excitable man to madness.

It was the technique, Eliot- the cursed, the impious, the unnatural technique! As I am a living being, I never elsewhere saw the actual breath of life so fused into a canvas. The monster was there- it glared and gnawed and gnawed and glared- and I knew that only a suspension of Nature’s laws could ever let a man paint a thing like that without a model- without some glimpse of the nether world which no mortal unsold to the Fiend has ever had.”

Utterly revolting and horrifying, and all this from words on a page. Now compare this technique to that found in The Music of Erich Zann. Which is more effective? We may not have physically seen such a thing, but I think most people could imagine a hideous dog-like monster eating a human (as unpleasant as it is). Yet with a window that looks out over another dimension…what the hell would that look like? The vague and ominous description leaves the reader to imagine, which can lead to thoughts scarier than any overwritten prose.I think they both work excellently, and these short stories are just two more examples that Lovecraft truly was a master of his craft.

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