The Purple Cloud – A Classic Of Existential Nihilism Explored

 M.P.Shiel’s delirious study of apocalypse, madness and insanity revisited.

When Matthew Phipps Shiel set sail for England from his home in Montserrat, his father gave him some advice that suggests he was all-too-familiar with his first son’s unusual ways: “Do not be strange,” he told him. It was advice that M.P. Shiel was clearly loath to take, as he embarked on a career variously as a teacher, a medical student (according to him, anyway) and, eventually, a very industrious author. Phipps is perhaps best known for his science fiction and fantasy, but as a jobbing writer he had a go at pretty much everything, writing well into his twilight years and surviving into his eighties; this erstwhile Decadent lived to see the outbreak of World War II. In-between times, he fathered an unconfirmed number of illegitimate offspring, had simultaneous relationships with multiple women, and once ended up in Wormwood Scrubs for ‘carnally knowing’ his mistress’s twelve-year-old daughter. There are many reasons that our Mr Phipps, of West Indian descent and with former slaves for both of his grandmothers, has not found his way into the post-colonial canon and become beloved of arts curricula everywhere. One of these reasons is clearly that he was an incorrigible shagger; he also showed only the barest of interest in post-colonial themes, preferring rip-roaring adventure and spectacle when his stories did – as they frequently did – take place away from Europe. M.P. Shiel has never really fitted into the mainstream.

The Purple Cloud, from 1901, is probably the most famous of his books, and it’s a phenomenally-engaging read. Taking cues from the ‘last man on Earth’ genre that kicked off with Mary Shelley and continued to grow in popularity throughout the rest of the 19th Century, Shiel’s last man is one Adam Jeffson, who insinuates himself into a team of would-be Arctic researchers; at the time, no one had been to the Pole. Incredibly romantic ideas about the place still prevailed; in the novel, there is a huge sum of money at stake for the first people who can get there. Jeffson, a doctor, is able to make himself fit the bill, though helped no end by his murderous fiancée Clodagh, a femme fatale and poisoner who wants Jeffson to be the first man to the Pole, for her sake. The money wouldn’t hurt either, after all; millions of pounds will go to the victor.

The expedition gets underway; Jeffson is despised by his team, who rightly suspect that he bumped off one of their number to take his place, watching him carefully. The book makes it its business to showcase its factual knowledge of travel and especially sailing, albeit inventing a method of propulsion to explain away how the vessel – the Boreal – can reach the inhospitable environs of the Arctic with no need for conventional fuel. To tell the truth, the book could have worked on this level alone: the crawling sense of paranoia, the isolation, the extreme environment and the palpable hazards are well written and explored. This is just the start, though: Jeffson decides to sneak off and go to the Pole alone, in the midst of a violent storm that is shaking the ice to pieces. The Pole itself is a strange, warm lake, with a frozen monolith in its midst; he heard voices while he was there, considering his fate and what he should do next. Jeffson returns to see his few remaining companions dead of the storm’s effects. It seems to him now that there is some unearthly force guiding him; what the force fails to explain is that, when he finds his way back to the Boreal, the crew left there are all dead too, but – suffocated. By what?

Jeffson begins the long journey back to civilisation, encountering crewless ships in increasing numbers: pure horror film ideas flow here, and the book becomes steadily more eerie. He now notices that there is a strange, sweet smell on the dead bodies that he finds, and the remnants of a violet mist or haze which still clings. He eventually finds his way to Norway; he sees mountains of corpses, corpses from all corners of the world, evidently dead in a moment of panic from which they could not escape. He deduces that these people must have been fleeing something, and he soon believes that the sickly smell and the purple pall have resulted from a volcanic eruption. He alone has been spared; the gas was not able to penetrate the freezing conditions of the Pole itself. He discovers, by gleaning from old newspapers and telegrams, that the gas was cyanogen. Everybody is dead.

So Jeffson does what anyone would do, in his situation. After returning to England and spending months looking high and low for survivors, he decides on a couple of achievable goals. The first is to commandeer a decent vessel, then travel around the world razing its great cities to the ground. He starts with London, remembering that he can get hold of explosives and timers from a warehouse on the Thames. Then he mixes it up, travelling to the Middle East and the Far East; for the occasion, he takes to dressing like an Oriental gentleman (Shiel was a big fan of Sir Richard Burton, and it shows) and smoking lots of hard drugs.

City-burning has now become a habit with me more enchaining – and infinitely more debased – than ever was opium to the smoker, or alcohol to the drunkard. I count it among the prime necessaries of my life: it is my brandy, my bacchanal, my secret sin. I have burned Calcutta, Pekin, and San Francisco…I have burned two hundred cities and countrysides. Like Leviathan disporting himself in the sea, so I have rioted in this earth.

To pass a bit of time (around seventeen years, all in all) Jeffson decides to build a palace on a Greek island that he takes a shine to: he casts it out of gold and amber, and decides to add a small lake, which he fills with wine. No sooner is he done than he’s bored of the place and takes to travelling again. There are barely-veiled allusions to cannibalism and necrophilia. Shiel can hardly address these kinds of things directly, but he gets pretty damn close in a lavish piece of appropriately purple prose:

I have taken a dead girl with wild huggings to my bosom; and I have touched the corrupted lip, and spat upon her face, and tossed her down, and crushed her teeth with my heel, and jumped and jumped upon her breast, like the snake-stamping zebra, mad, mad…!

I don’t want to disclose how the story ends, but rest assured: it never descends into tedium. Shiel’s style is overblown, completely laden with finer and finer details, addressing existential angst and smatterings of supernatural content with meticulous observations of places and people (even if dead people). It’s a kind of writing style that it’s easy to associate with Decadence, but it doesn’t simply rest on Decadent themes, offering a mishmash of travel writing, introspective angst, Theosophy, boat maintenance and palace building 101 along the way. It’s a complex, spiralling piece of work which offers a hint of a glimpse at the complex man behind it – a man who would be cancelled, in the modern parlance, if he were only better-known now.

KERI O’SHEA

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