The Purple Cloud

Two decades ago I acquired a copy of The Best Short Stories of M. P. Shiel, edited by John Gawsworth (Gollancz, 1948). For years I'd been looking for the book, having first run across references to Shiel (1865-1947) in H. P. Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature, the reading of which remains a highlight of my senior year in high school. In that monograph's enthralling pages the master of eldritch horror pointed his wide-eyed acolytes, of which I was obviously one, to both famous and forgotten masters of the weird tale. Lovecraft says this about Shiel:

Matthew Phipps Shiel, author of many weird, grotesque and adventurous novels and tales, occasionally attains a high level of horrific magic. "Xelucha" is a noxiously hideous fragment, but is excelled by Mr. Shiel's undoubted masterpiece, "The House of Sounds," floridly written in the "yellow" nineties, and re-cast with more artistic restraint in the early twentieth century. This story, in its final form, deserves a place among the foremost things of its kind. It tells of a creeping horror and menace trickling down the centuries on a sub-arctic island off the coast of Norway; where, amidst the sweep of daemon winds and the ceaseless din of hellish waves and cataracts, a vengeful dead man built a brazen tower of terror. It is vaguely like, yet infinitely unlike, Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher."

Note the remark about "The House of Sounds" having been "floridly written in the 'yellow' nineties" and later "recast." Lovecraft, seldom regarded as a champion of moderation, strongly preferred the revised, toned-down version of "Vaila," as the story was originally titled. Most Shiel fans, however, favor what Gawsworth calls the earlier "primal printing," which displays the idiosyncratic Shiel style in all its glorious, purple excess. For this astonishing writer is, in his early work, perhaps the most outré of all the fin-de-siècle decadents. At his best -- some might say his worst -- he writes a prose of  ornate and kitschy splendor.


Consider, for instance, the crumbling tower rooms inhabited by the hero of Shiel's first book, Prince Zaleski (1895):

Side by side rested a palaeolithic implement, a Chinese "wise man," a Gnostic gem, an amphora of Graeco-Etruscan work. The general effect was a bizarrerie of half-weird sheen and gloom. Flemish sepulchral brasses companied strangely with runic tablets, miniature paintings, a winged bull, Tamil scriptures on lacquered leaves of the talipot, mediaeval reliquaries richly gemmed, Brahmin gods....

We first glimpse the prince himself, as he "reclined on a couch from which a draping of cloth-of-silver rolled torrent over the floor. Beside him, stretched in its open sarcophagus which rested on three brazen trestles, lay the mummy of an ancient Memphian, from the upper part of which the brown cerements had rotted or been rent, leaving the hideousness of the naked, grinning countenance exposed to view."

In other words, a principal design feature of Zaleski's living room is a decaying mummy. When the narrator of the story, apparently Shiel himself, comes to visit he finds his host perusing "an old vellum reprint of Anacreon." As the two converse, the prince, illuminated by a "moony greenish light," listens wearily, his "pale inverted eyes" like those of some old anchorite or astrologer.

Prince Zaleski consists of three detective stories, its reclusive hero being a more ingenious Auguste Dupin, a more effete Sherlock Holmes, never leaving his Orientalist retreat and the comfort of his hashish-like drugs. Waited upon only by a gigantic black servant, Zaleski lives alone, and to him Shiel brings accounts of truly bizarre and exotic crimes.

In the first, "The Race of Orven," Lord Pharanx, after secluding himself in his study for days, is mysteriously killed on a night when a serving girl claims to have seen an uncanny white ball floating in the air. In the second story, "The Stone of the Edmundsbury Monks," Zaleski tries to forestall the death of the mysterious antiquary Sir Jocelin Saul:

The baronet had consumed his vitality in the lifelong attempt to sound the too fervid Maelstrom of Oriental research, and his mind had perhaps caught from his studies a tinge of their morbidity, their esotericism, their insanity. He had for some years past been engaged in the task of writing a stupendous work on Pre-Zoroastrian Theogonies...

Much of this story reproduces Saul's diary, in which he notes the increasingly enigmatic behavior of his servant Ul-Jabal and the periodic theft and replacement of a Moonstone-like gem. The tale will culminate in a particularly wicked murder that leaves no marks of violence.

The best of these three investigations is the last, "The S.S.," though it is also the most disturbing to modern sensibilities, as its solution turns on the issue of eugenics. (It was, needless to say and despite its ominous title, written long before the rise of the Nazis.) In fact, throughout the Prince Zaleski stories, and much of his later work, Shiel discloses many of the usual period attitudes about racial stock, weakness of the blood, and inherited proclivities. Like his contemporary Bernard Shaw (and many others of their time), he was fascinated by the possible development of a Nietzschean Overman.

"The S.S." opens with Shiel informing Zaleski of an epidemic of suicide sweeping the continent: "As a brimming maiden, out-worn by her virginity, yields half-fainting to the dear sick stress of her desire -- with just such faintings, wanton fires, does the soul, over-taxed by the continence of living, yield voluntary to the grave, and adulterously make of Death its paramour."

This great European "death-dance" seems to have been inspired by the sudden demise of an eminent German doctor, in whose dead mouth was found a "curious strip of what looked like ancient papyrus, on which were traced certain grotesque and apparently meaningless figures." Shiel reproduces the design for Zaleski -- a reclining figure in an Egyptian-style boat, being ministered to by a young woman, the image bordered by strange hieroglyphs. Eventually, the prince deciphers the picture's esoteric meaning yet must ultimately abandon his redoubt and risk his life to thwart the astonishing plans of "the S.S."

These Zaleski mystery stories are frequently reprinted in anthologies about "the rivals of Sherlock Holmes" (and are readily available from various print-on-demand publishers). In general, though, Shiel's early short fiction -- first collected in Shapes in the Fire (1896) and The Pale Ape and Other Pulses (1911) -- aims either for cosmic horror or for visceral, existential shock. "The Primate of the Rose," for instance, is pure conte cruel, reminiscent of  Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado." Other stories focus on vengeful revenants, Lovecraftian hybrids, and figures of nightmare. But whatever the plot, the reader is always quickly entangled in ornate, arabesque English. The narrator of "Xelucha" -- who is called Merimée, perhaps ironically, given the famously austere style of the French writer of that name -- encounters a Picadilly prostitute and casually notes that "in the redundance of her décolleté development, she resembled Parvati, love-goddess of the luscious fancy of the Brahmin." You can't make this stuff up.
 
Perhaps the best overall collection of Shiel's tales currently available is The House of Sounds and Others, edited by S. T. Joshi (Hippocampus Press). Besides the title story, it reprints Lovecraft's favorites ("Xelucha," "The Pale Ape," "The Case of Euphemia Raphash," "Huguenin's Wife," "The Great King," and "The Bride"), adds "Vaila" in an appendix, and devotes nearly half the volume to the 1901 version, generally preferred to the 1929 revision, of The Purple Cloud.

That titanic science fiction novel, laced with fantasy elements, is the only work of its time comparable in visionary power to H. G. Wells's The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Penguin has just issued an excellent new paperback, with a long introduction and illuminating notes by John Sutherland. I strongly recommend it. A few years back, Tartarus Press, known for its important editions of neglected supernatural fiction, published a much coveted hardback, supplementing the text with illustrations from the novel's original serial publication. I treasure my copy.

As it happens, Lovecraft also read and briefly summarized The Purple Cloud: "Mr. Shiel describes with tremendous power a curse which came out of the arctic to destroy mankind, and which for a time appears to have left but a single inhabitant on our planet. The sensations of this lone survivor as he realizes his position, and roams through the corpse-littered and treasure-strewn cities of the world as their absolute master, are delivered with a skill and artistry falling little short of actual majesty."

 Couched as a vision of the near future, The Purple Cloud is a long and rich book, and rest assured, what follows here only touches on some elements from its first half. The narrative, composed in relatively straightforward English, begins in medias res, in an almost jaunty tone:

Well, the memory seems to be getting rather impaired now, rather weak.... Things which took place before the voyage seem to be getting a little cloudy in the memory now. I have sat here, in the loggia of this Cornish villa, to write down some sort of account of what has happened -- God knows why, since no eye can ever read it...

Adam Jeffson -- such is the symbolic name of the narrator (Adam Jehovah's son) -- is, at the beginning of his story, a twenty-five-year-old doctor in thrall to the slightly older and manipulative Countess Clodagh. While successful and seemingly normal, Adam nonetheless suffers from a peculiar mental malady, one that has affected him since childhood: In his head he sometimes hears the voices of two Powers, in deadly conflict with each other, urging him to opposite courses. He dubs them Black and White, and later comes to believe that these contentious entities -- or deities -- control the planet and humankind's destiny.

His own destiny, if Clodagh has anything to do with it (and she does), is to become a member of a forthcoming Arctic expedition. In his will an American millionaire  has left a great prize -- $175 million -- to the first man (not team) to set foot on the North Pole. When Adam  boards the Boreal, a specially designed icebreaker, Clodagh sends him a last-minute telegram: "Be first -- for me."

If Shiel's earliest fiction reveled in the soft, hallucinatory and gorgeous, in a world of divans and scimitars and hanging silks and hookahs, this novel transports us to the icy, stoic realm of early Arctic explorers. To survive, Adam becomes as hardened as a Nansen or a Peary. Yet Shiel doesn't neglect the mystery and romance of the North. He is clearly aware of  theories that the North Pole might contain an entrance into a hollow earth, or that it might be warm and tropical, or that it might be the site of the original Eden. Adam's polar adventures also play off the vision of Frankenstein's monster leaping from ice floe to ice floe; the doomed expedition of Sir John Franklin in search of the Northwest Passage; several works of Jules Verne's, including The Adventures of Captain Hatteras; and, of course, Poe's account of a similar  journey to the South Pole, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

When Adam eventually reaches the North Pole, after much death and suffering, he faints dead away. He later recalls what he glimpsed there -- though you will have to read the book to find out. But, once  he regains consciousness and starts back to the Boreal, only then does Adam notice a growing number of dead birds and polar bears on the ice. Sometimes he smells the fragrance of peaches, too, a sweetness that  makes him retch. Yet on he trudges doggedly, surviving against great odds, until he reaches the ship. He finds that everyone on board is dead. Because the Boreal is powered by a kind of air-propulsion -- Shiel's one science fictional invention -- Adam is able to sail south without help. The seas are full of dead animals. Drifting ships are full of dead sailors. When he lands in Norway, the streets are packed with the dead of many nations, some of them fleeing toward the water, some crouching behind sealed-up windows and doors.

Eventually, Adam comes across telegrams and newspapers describing a purple cloud floating across the world from the East, destroying all life in its wake. Rather troublingly, it seems to have appeared at the very moment he reached the Pole. Could Adam now be the last and only man alive? Could he be dreaming or hallucinating,  or has he gone completely mad?

A problematic character to begin with, the solitary Adam begins to surrender to the dark side, to listen to the voice of Black. Adopting a lifestyle of voluptuous self-indulgence, he dresses himself in robes like an Oriental potentate, and decorates his body with gold and jewelry. He sips the finest vintages, smokes opium, and sometimes couples with dead girls.

 Meanwhile, Adam's wanderings across the world, searching for survivors and destroying cities in his wake, exhibits a kind of unholy grandeur. He becomes a post-holocaust Tamerlane, a scourge of God, one of science fiction's great antiheroes, like Jules Verne's Robur the Conqueror in Master of the World or Alfred Bester's Gully Foyle of The Stars My Destination or Robert Kerans in J. G. Ballard's The Drowned World. There even comes a point when Adam cannot bear the thought that he might not be alone, that he might have to share the earth with someone else.

I have said to myself: I will ravage and riot in my Kingdoms. I will rage like the Caesars, and be a withering blight where I pass like Sennacherib, and wallow in the soft delights of Sardanapalus. I will build me a palace, as vast as a city, in which to strut and parade my Monarchy before the Heavens, with stones of pure molten gold, and rough frontispiece of diamond, and cupolas of amethyst, and pillars of pearl.... I will be restless and turbulent in my territories: and again, I will be languishing, and fond, I will say to my soul: "Be Full."

But Adam is in for a surprise. The forces of Black and White have not finished with him -- or the Earth. In Constantinople he will make a discovery that completely changes everything. Ultimately, like so many of the most ambitious works of fantasy and science fiction, The Purple Cloud makes us think hard about our relationship to the planet we live on and what it means to be human. 
 
During his lifetime M. P. Shiel was admired by such contemporaries as H. G. Wells, Rebecca West, and Arthur Machen (who was a friend). But Shiel the man is almost as fascinating, and disturbing, as his fiction. Thanks to the biographical research of Harold Billings (and others), we know that he was born in Montserrat, in the Caribbean, and that both his parents may have been of mixed blood. As a boy his father crowned him the king of the small island of Redonda. Half-jokingly perhaps, Shiel left the title to his friend and executor John Gawsworth, who regularly passed out Redondan dukedoms to his literary friends. Today, the current king of Redonda is the Spanish writer Javier Marías -- though there are other pretenders to the throne.

Much of Shiel's fiction deals with ideas in the air during the late nineteenth century, from eugenics to reincarnation to psychical research to astral projection. For instance, Black and White in The Purple Cloud clearly owe something to Madame Blavatsky, whose theosophical treatises describe contesting cosmic powers and ancient mystical beings, now dwelling in Tibet, who are the secret masters of the world. However, some of Shiel's ideas verge on, or cross over, into the offensive. One of his books imagines that Jesus and all those he raised from the dead are still alive on earth. Shiel's second-most-important long work, the exciting Dumas-like adventure The Lord of the Sea, has been read, or misread, as anti-Semitic, and some of his serial fiction employs the "Yellow Peril" theme.

As a man, Shiel is just as controversial. In the first half of his life, he seems to have been exceptionally promiscuous, rivaling H. G. Wells in the number and variety of his love affairs. Like Wells, he too fathered illegitimate children, some while married. He was, moreover, attracted to adolescent or even pubescent girls, courting his first wife when she was just sixteen or seventeen. Convicted of "carnal knowledge" of a mistress's teenage daughter, he was duly sentenced to more than a year in Wormwood Scrubs. Interestingly, several of his short stories feature predatory men being nastily punished for ruining the lives of young women. Self-hate?

In the end, M. P. Shiel provides a real test for a twenty-first-century reader. He tends to write an unnatural, histrionic kind of English. His social, religious, and political views sometimes verge, at the very least, on the repugnant. His personal life was often  reprehensible, not to say criminal. And yet, at his best, there is no other writer quite like him in strangeness of vision and power and language. If you care at all about science fiction, fin-de-siècle literature, or modern horror, you need to be familiar with M. P. Shiel's work. All in all, he ranks just below his contemporaries H. G. Wells and Arthur Machen as one of the greatest early masters of the fantastic.

 

 

 

Comments
by PhilRM on ‎02-03-2013 09:45 AM

Only Lovecraft would use "a noxiously hideous fragment" as a term of praise!

About the Columnist
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and several collections of essays. His most recent book is Classics for Pleasure.

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