[The following is an updated reprint of a column which originally appeared in the August 25, 2005, issue of Hellnotes.]
M.P. Shiel is probably best known for his masterpiece, The Purple Cloud. This last-man-on-earth novel, which H.G. Wells called “colossal” and “brilliant,” doesn’t contain any supernatural elements but is no less horrific. Shiel wrote about 25 novels and dozens of short stories. His body of work, which is noted for poetic, mellifluous prose and underlying philosophical themes, includes romantic mysteries, adventures, horror, and science-fiction.
Matthew Phipps Shiell (he later dropped the second “l” ) was born in Plymouth, Montserrat, the West Indies, on July 21, 1865. He wrote of his birth: “I was born at the moment of an earthquake and a storm, or, rather, these were born at the moment of me. Nature sneezed at my coming. The sheet-lightning, like a sheeted ghost, came peering into the chamber, winking a million to the second. And, with lullaby rough enough, this mixture of Heaven and Earth and Hell which I call ‘I,’ and sometimes ‘We,’ came out, and began to cry.”
His father, Matthew Dowdy Shiell, was of Irish descent, and his mother, Priscilla Ann Blake, was of mixed race. Shiel had nine sisters and was the sole son in the family. His father laid claim to the island of Santa Maria la Redonda, which he called the Kingdom of Redonda, and at age 15, Shiel was crowned King Filipe of Redonda (or so goes the legend he perpetuated).
Shiel started writing young. He produced a newspaper when he was 11, and then a novel and a serial by the time he was 13. When he was 17, he discovered Edgar Allan Poe and many of his writings were influenced by Poe’s work.
He had an extensive education, first at Harrison College in Barbados and then at King’s College in London. He spoke eight languages and worked as an interpreter. He first tried medicine as a career, but he almost fainted when he saw his first surgery. He then taught math, but he didn’t like that either. He turned to writing and sold his first story in 1889.
After 1885, Shiel lived mostly in London and Paris, gravitating toward the Bohemian lifestyle and associating with Arthur Machen, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Shiel traveled extensively through Europe, especially Italy and Spain, and he finally settled in Horsham, Sussex, England.
Shiel was married twice. The first time was to Lina Garcia Gomez, in 1898, with whom he had a daughter. In 1903, he left them in Paris. He married Esther Lydia Furley in 1919, and after ten years, they parted ways. In between these marriages, he had an affair with Elizabeth Price. This relationship produced a daughter and perhaps a son. From 1931 until his death, he held a long-distance love affair by correspondence with Annamarie Miller of New York.
In 1895, he published his first book, the collection Prince Zaleski. These stories were in the vein of Sherlock Holmes and Auguste Dupin. The work was described as “Sherlock Holmes in the House of Usher” (Sam Moskowitz) and “Poe with an unearthly radiance” (Machen). The comparisons continued with Machen calling the horror collection Shapes in the Fire (1896) “a wilder wonderland than Poe ever dreamt of.” Also in 1896, Shiel published his first novel, The Rajah’s Sapphire, written in collaboration with W.T. Stead.
Shiel gained fame in 1898 with the publication of his commissioned magazine serial The Empress of the Earth. This futuristic world-war story was influenced by the crisis in China at the time, and actual events were incorporated into the serial as the crisis unfolded. Later that year, this serial was published in book form as The Yellow Danger, which was extensively reprinted, reserialized (as The Yellow Peril), and revised (to incorporate the 1900 Boxer Rebellion). However, Shiel considered the story hackwork and was not proud of it. Subsequent Asian crises inspired The Yellow Wave (1905) and The Dragon (1913).
The Purple Cloud (1901) tells the story of an adventurer who, while at the North Pole, escapes a cloud of poisonous gas that wipes out the Earth’s population. He explores the world of corpses, leaving his mark here and there and surviving for decades alone, while wondering if there were any other survivors. This novel received high praise from many quarters, including August Derleth, Hugh Walpole, E.M. Benson, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Dashiell Hammett. H.P. Lovecraft said this story was “delivered with a skill and artistry falling little short of actual majesty.”
The Purple Cloud used the device of transcriptions of visions of the future seen by one Mary Wilson while in a hypnotic trance. Her visions were also the basis for the novels The Lord of the Sea (1901) and The Last Miracle (1906).
In 1911 came “The House of Sounds,” one of Shiel’s most celebrated stories. It is the tale of a strange bronze house built on an island off the coast of Norway. The house is continually buffeted by strong winds and rushing waves. This story has been likened to Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” (An earlier version, “Vaila,” appeared in Shapes in the Fire.) This story and other weird tales were published in The Pale Ape and Other Pulses (1911).
From 1913 to 1923, Shiel did not publish anything. His books published from 1923 on were mainly mysteries and romances. In his last years, Shiel, perhaps influenced by his father’s lay ministry, worked on Jesus, a New Testament study that he called “a truer translation of Luke” from the original Greek, with commentary. He finished this shortly before he died, but the manuscript went unpublished and now much of it is lost.
Shiel died on February 17, 1947, at St. Richard’s Hospital in Chichester, England, at age 81.
Available from Tartarus Press are Prince Zaleski, a collection of six stories with a new introduction, and The Pale Ape and Other Pulses, containing a new introduction and ten stories. Available from Hippocampus Press is The House of Sounds and Others, a trade paperback containing the title story, seven other stories, and The Purple Cloud. From Arkham House, you can get the collection Prince Zaleski and Cummings King Monk. Aegypan has published a reprint of Shapes in the Fire.