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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?