Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Howie & Bob - Parallel Lives?

H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Aickman - those two crazy guys are the chalk and cheese of horror, though which is which I obviously can't say. If works by both appear in the same anthology quite a few readers are bound to be seriously annoyed. I enjoy reading both, but I suspect I'm in a minority. Aickman certainly didn't rate his American predecessor, declaring that 'The Music of Erich Zann' was the only Lovecraft tale he liked. And yet both are revered authors whose reputations have been maintained not by mainstream critics, still less by 'the book buying public', but by generations of fans. Both were well-read men who set out to institute a kind of 'reform' of the horror story (or weird tale, if you like). Let's consider some other similarities.

1. Childhood

Both men were only children. Lovecraft was born in the USA in 1890, Aickman in England in 1914. That's a gap of about one generation, with the North Atlantic thrown in. But look closer and there are striking parallels. Both had troubled and troublesome fathers. Lovecraft's dad famously died in an asylum after being driven mad by what is assumed to be syphilis. He was raised by his mother and his aunts.

Aickman's father was much older than his mother, so much so that the poor woman nearly fainted from shock when - at the wedding - she saw for the first time her husband's date of birth. In his autobiography The Attempted Rescue Aickman recalls his father as domineering, financially incompetent, and possibly predatory towards his son.

2. Education

Both Lovecraft and Aickman were intelligent and born into upper middle-class (more or less) backgrounds. Both would be expected to go to university, but neither did. In Lovecraft's case this was apparently down to emotional frailty, in Aickman's case there simply wasn't the money. Had both gone to university it is at least possible that they'd have found a comfortable academic niche and never left - the M.R. James route. Instead they became autodidacts, effectively educating themselves. Lovecraft makes a point of flaunting his acquired knowledge of science, history etcetera and inventing his own pseudo-intellectual (and light-hearted) field, the so-called Mythos. Aickman often slips in references to opera, ballet and so forth that might flummox all but the most erudite reader.

3. Hard Times

In middle age Lovecraft found himself ever more financially embarrassed, not least because his stories earned him a pittance when they sold at all. Like Aickman, Lovecraft could not look to his family for help so both men were forced onto their own resources. Lovecraft died in 1937, so we don't know if his fortunes would have seen an upturn. After initial hardships Aickman did rather well in post-War Britain, with notable achievements in a number of fields, most significantly as co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association.

Both men had failed marriages. Lovecraft, the anti-Semite who despised immigrants, married Sonia Haft-Green, a Jewish Ukrainian. They soon separated and were divorced, Aickman's marriage lasted longer but during it he became besotted with Elizabeth Jane Howard. His wife eventually entered a convent, leading Aickman to be rude to clergymen.

It's probably just coincidence, but worth noting, that both men died of cancer that went untreated - Aickman rejected conventional medicine, Lovecraft couldn't afford it.

4. Conservatism

Both authors were right-wing, though Lovecraft was more overtly political than Aickman. However, both were conservative by the standards of their day. In a scientific culture where rapid social change cannot long be prevented, true conservatism must be entwined with pessimism. Aickman claimed that the year of his birth also marked the end of history made by men - the Great War was the moment when machines took over, creating an insensate, anti-human world. Keen on science though he was, Lovecraft was also intensely pessimistic about the future. His bleak assessment of our species' cosmic status - or lack of it - informs his best work.

5. Novelty

H.P. Lovecraft and Aickman were both immensely well-read in the field of weird fiction, and both - in their very different ways - were innovators in that field. Lovecraft rejected much of the conventional paraphernalia of ghosts, vampires, and witchcraft found in earlier 'spook stories', and tried to redefine the supernatural in terms of proto-science fiction. It was a qualified success, at best, but it worked well enough to generate fan sites, spin-offs, dramatic adaptations, tributes, parodies, and a lot of serious scholarship.

Robert Aickman's strange stories, as he called them, were famously based on disturbing dreams that he wished to exorcise, and in terms of plotting as well as style are far removed from Lovecraft's carefully-crafted horrors. But both have a 'Marmite' effect - for everyone who loves Aickman there is at least one reader who resents the lack of a conventional pay-off, explanation, or twist.

By the same token, few can be unaware of the contempt lavished upon Lovecraft by some critics and horror fans. Admittedly Aickman succeeded where Lovecraft failed, in getting his stories published in book form within his lifetime, probably because they can be seen as part of a literary tradition that includes L.P. Hartley and Elizabeth Bowen. But both authors fell into neglect for years after their died until enthusiasts made a point of publishing their stories in quality hardback editions.

6. Dear Old Blighty

Lovecraft was an intense Anglophile, though he never visited England and perhaps for this reason failed to grasp the nuances of its class system. (In criticising the style of M.R. James' fiction, for instance, he seems unaware that a scholarly gentlemen must wear his learning lightly. If you know that, the tone of the antiquarian ghost story makes perfect sense.)

This postcard uses the Union Flag and the icon of the Bulldog to show Britain, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa standing united against a common threat, 1915. Aickman was a persistent critic of post-War society and no doubt sincere in his dislike of Labour governments etcetera. But his long, hard campaign to save and revitalise England's canals was a labour of love, and was only one of many cultural endeavours. A man wholly out of sympathy with his country does not strive long and hard to make it a better place to live. Paradoxical, given his pessimism? Yep. That's life.

Reading back what I've written I feel sure I've blundered here and there. I'm writing from memory with minimal fact-checking (it's a blog, not a thesis). Feel free to correct me or just plain disagree. But am I wholly wrong in seeing parallels between the lives, literary endeavours, and world-views of Tentacle Boy and Narrow Boat Bloke?

And will my tragically undisciplined mind ever stop inventing silly nicknames for serious authors?


knobgobbler said...

I love the writing of both those guys. They seem to me to be very complementary flavors of weird.

Aonghus Fallon said...

I'd regard Aickman as by far the better writer, but then I've read very little Lovecraft. Each to his own, I guess.

John Howard said...

Much enjoyed these comparisons between Aickman and Lovecraft - intriguing and thought-provoking. I would certainly enjoy reading stories by both authors in the same book! They are both among the greatest writers in the field, and as has been said, can be considered 'complementary flavours'.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Lovecraft's conservatism there is an interview with him on Youtube, I expect you've seen it, where he says he's a supporter of Roosevelt and the New Deal, was he taking the piss perhaps ? Mind you some of us would say that the New Deal was deeply reactionary in the way that it damaged the American economy but let's not go there !

Interesting that Tom Rolt also a leading light in the attempt to revitalise the canals also wrote ghost stories.


valdemar said...

Aonghus - I'd agree that Aickman is the better writer in terms that would be instantly grasped by, say, a Booker Prize committee. Arguably it's precisely the 'bad' qualities in Lovecraft that make him more influential i.e. less mainstream.

John - I like anthologies with wildly differing styles and story ideas. Great Tales of Horror-type things are often refreshing precisely because they cover all bases.

Thornavis - I think HPL did support the New Deal. He was very contemptuous of those who opposed it.

“As for the Republicans -- how can one regard seriously a frightened, greedy, nostalgic huddle of tradesmen and lucky idlers who shut their eyes to history and science, steel their emotions against decent human sympathy, cling to sordid and provincial ideals exalting sheer acquisitiveness and condoning artificial hardship for the non-materially-shrewd, dwell smugly and sentimentally in a distorted dream-cosmos of outmoded phrases and principles and attitudes based on the bygone agricultural-handicraft world, and revel in (consciously or unconsciously) mendacious assumptions (such as the notion that real liberty is synonymous with the single detail of unrestricted economic license or that a rational planning of resource-distribution would contravene some vague and mystical 'American heritage'...) utterly contrary to fact and without the slightest foundation in human experience? Intellectually, the Republican idea deserves the tolerance and respect one gives to the dead.”

Anonymous said...

Rather a confused rant from HP there, probably had his mind invaded by the Migo or something.

Of course conservatism is a rather nebulous thing to define, progressives can be very conservative and there's certainly nothing inherently contradictory between belief in state intervention and antisemitism.

Certainly I always thought of Lovecraft as very reactionary, something I somehow picked up on even at the young age that I first read him, about 14. Almost Nazi like in his contempt for humanity,
not a nice man but an excellent writer.