Rediscovering M. P. Shiel (1865-1947)


John D. Squires


First published in

The New York Review of Science Fiction,

< >

#153, Vol. 13, No. 9 (May 2001), pp 12-15.

[This text was lightly revised for the web in January, 2004]

(Copyright © 2001, 2004 by John D. Squires)


            2001 was a year with many connotations for science fiction afficionados of all stripes.  The most obvious, of course, arise from Clarke’s novel and Kubrick’s film.  A few readers though may remember that 2001 was the centennial year of the publication of two early classics of science fiction by M. P. Shiel, The Purple Cloud (London: Chatto & Windus) and The Lord of the Sea (London: Grant Richards; New York: Frederick A Stokes.)  

            Matthew Phipps Shiel was born on July 21, 1865 on Montserrat, British West Indies, as the 8th or 9th child & first son of Matthew Dowdy Shiell and Priscilla Ann Blake.  It appears Shiel’s mother was at least partially black.  According to legend, his father, a merchant, ship owner and Methodist lay-preacher who claimed descent from the ancient kings of Ireland, was so delighted at finally having a male heir that he claimed the uninhabited Island of Redonda for his son.  A near barren rock less than a mile square, Redonda was formally annexed by Britain to near by Antigua in 1872.  Shiel later wrote that a crowning ceremony was held on his 15th birthday in 1880.  He attended Harrison College, Barbados, then moved to England in 1885, never to return.              In England young Shiel (who dropped the second “l” from his name) taught for a while, then studied medicine briefly before turning to writing.  He had 24 novels, five collections of short stories and a slim volume of verse published from 1895-1937.  Science, Life and Literature (1950), a collection of essays, and The New King (1980), a last novel, were published posthumously.  A number of other short stories remain uncollected from their original magazine appearances.  He spent the last decade of his life working on his magnum opus, Jesus, which he described as a truer translation of the Book of Luke from the original Greek, with commentary.  Half of the final draft was lost at Shiel’s death in 1947 and it has never been published. 

            Shiel’s first and third books (Prince Zaleski, 1895, and Shapes in the Fire, 1896) were collections of new short stories written in an opulent prose reminiscent of Poe.  They were both published by John Lane, the premier publisher of the English Decadent Movement.  The Zaleski stories are still in print from Arkham House.  Shapes in the Fire was recently reprinted in England by Tartarus Press in a gorgeous 300 copy edition with a new Introduction by Brian Stableford, who describes the collection as “the boldest and the most flamboyant” of the entire movement.  Neither collection was commercially successful when first published, caught perhaps in the anti-decadent backlash following the Oscar Wilde trial. 

            Today Shiel’s most famous novel is The Purple Cloud, which is generally considered  the best of all “last man” stories & one of the few contemporary science fiction novels comparable to the best work of H. G. Wells.  It was first optioned for film in 1927 and eventually credited as the basis for The World, the Flesh and the Devil (MGM, 1959) staring Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, and Mel Ferrer.  While the film has merit, its roots in Shiel’s novel are tenuous.  Stephen King has acknowledged The Purple Cloud as an influence on his own end of the world novel, The Stand (1978, revised 1990).  The critic and novelist Edward Shanks declared in 1947 that Cloud would never be long out of print, a prediction reflected perhaps in the new Bison Books edition, which was reviewed in the January 2001 issue of the NYRSF. 

            Shiel had made his original literary reputation with a novel of very different sort.  The Yellow Danger first appeared as a weekly serial in Short Stories (London: C. A. Pearson) from 5 Feb-18 June, 1898 under the title The Empress of the Earth.  The serial had been commissioned to exploit a crisis which arose in China in November, 1897 when Germany used the murder of some missionaries as a pretext to seize the port of Kaio-Chau.  France & Russia responded to the German move by seizing other Chinese territories, leading to what historians named the "Scramble for Concessions."  The seemingly coordinated European moves in China appeared to threaten England’s paramount position in the China trade.   There were even rumors of imminent war.  Shiel's serial cleverly incorporated the previous week's current headlines into each successive weekly chapter, interweaving fact and fiction into a wild future war extravaganza in which the European powers attack England, thus weakening themselves to be overrun by the united masses of Asia.

            The public loved it.  Pearson begged Shiel to stretch it out, and the original contract length of 70,000 words swelled out to 150,000 words by the last installment.  Shiel cut it back to 100,000 words for the book version which was rushed into print in July, 1898 as The Yellow Danger.  Letters between Shiel & Grant Richards, his English publisher, make clear they

where anxious to publish it quickly while the China crisis was still in the public mind.  The US edition followed shortly but with several revisions demanded by the US publisher deleting some anti-American comments & completely revising the last chapter.  From his letters to Richards [now at the Humanities Research Center at the U of Texas, Austin] it appears that Shiel preferred the Richards text & the US revisions were not incorporated into any of the subsequent UK reprints.

            The Yellow Danger  went through more than ten new printings or editions from 1898-1901, including both a re-serialization [as The Yellow Peril, to the further confusion of bibliographers,] & a new edition when the Boxer Rebellion broke out in China in 1900.  A recent history of the Boxer crisis actually quotes the novel as an example of English attitudes towards China, though the author seems oblivious of Danger’s clear roots in contemporary events. [Diana Preston, The Boxer Rebellion, Walker & Company: NY (2000), a revision of Besieged in Peking, Constable & Company Ltd: London (1999).]  The book made Shiel's popular reputation & was certainly the most commercially successful novel published during his life. 

            Shiel himself considered it hackwork and seemed embarrassed by its success.  Internal evidence suggests H. G. Wells had Shiel in mind when he wrote his own novel of East-West conflict, The War in the Air (1908), which inverts some plot elements from Shiel’s novel and includes several apparent references to Shiel in the text.  An earlier Wells story, “The Rajah’s Treasure” was published in Pearson’s Magazine in July, 1896, the same month that Wells’ dismissive review of Shiel’s The Rajah’s Sapphire appeared in The Saturday Review.  Again, the Wells story inverts elements from and can be read as a parody of Shiel’s novel. The full impact of Shiel and Wells on each other has yet to be examined.

            In 1979 Reynolds Morse reprinted an offset of the serial version in Volume I of his massive Shiel series together with the serial version of The Purple Cloud and 15 short stories.  This is still in print.  The book text was last reprinted in 1998 in London by Routledge/Thoemmes Press as part of the series Sources of Science Fiction: Future War Novels of the 1890s, edited by George Locke.   I went into some detail in pointing out some of the references to real people and events in the book in my essay, "Some Contemporary Themes in Shiel's Early Novels" [M. P. Shiel in Diverse Hands: A Collection of Essays on M. P. Shiel, ed by A. R. Morse, (Cleveland: Reynolds Morse Foundation, 1983, 249-327.)] 

            Subsequent Asian crises inspired other Shiel novels. The Yellow Wave (London: Ward Lock, 1905) was a rewrite of "Romeo and Juliet" set during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.  The Dragon (London: Grant Richards, 1913, first serialized as To Arms! in The Red Magazine 1 Jan-15 March 1913) was probably inspired by Sun Yat-Sen's return to China during the Chinese Revolution of 1911-1912.  Shiel's oriental masterminds in The Yellow Danger and The Dragon  were both partially based on Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925), who first became a public figure in London in 1896.  In many respects The Dragon is simply a more sophisticated rewrite of The Yellow Danger with more science fiction elements.  It was lightly revised, primarily in the last chapter, as The Yellow Peril (London: Gollancz, 1929.)  Shiel's first novel, The Rajah's Sapphire (London: Ward Lock, 1896) had also incorporated references to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, though they were not central to the plot, which had been given to Shiel vivâ voce by crusading English journalist W. T. Stead (1849-1912.) [Link to WTS site: ]

            In the 1920s or 30s Shiel completed a final, unpublished revision of The Yellow Danger as China in Arms.  I offset a 25 copy edition of this in 1998 from the original manuscript in the Morse Shiel collection at Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida. [Link to Rollins: ]    Most of the Morse collection is available only on site under restricted access, but it includes a nearly complete, duplicate reading set of Shiel's novels.  Those duplicates are available to serious scholars by inter library loan.  This reading set includes offset versions of the serial To Arms! and China In Arms.

            While The Yellow Danger was Shiel’s first commercial success and The Purple Cloud is considered his best novel, his most controversial work was The Lord of the Sea.  Also first published in 1901 it shares a similar prologue with The Purple Cloud and The Last Miracle (London: T. Werner Laurie, 1906.)  Each purports to be the transcription of notes by a doctor of the statements of Mary Wilson, a patient who "witnesses" future events while under hypnotic trance.  (It is possible that this framing devise may have been suggested to Shiel by W. T. Stead, who strongly believed in spiritualism and spirit writing.)  In his introduction to the Gregg Press edition of The Purple Cloud (1977-- the first and so far only publication of the 1901 text in America) David Hartwell identifies the three novels as the first future history in science fiction, suggesting that they were probably written, and should be read, in order of the numbering of the notebooks identified in each prologue (I, The Last Miracle, II, The Lord of the Sea, and III, The Purple Cloud)  rather than in order of publication.  The numbers of the notebooks correspond to the relative distance in the future in which each novel presumably occurs. [Shiel’s letters to Richards at the HRC confirm Hartwell’s hunch.  The Last Miracle was in outline or draft form by Fall, 1898.  Both Lord and Cloud were probably finished by late 1899, though their publication was delayed, as Shiel complained to Richards, by the Boer War and other problems.] 

            Shiel revised all three novels for republication in the 1920s.  As usual, his revisions were primarily cuts in the text, often initially made in a copy of the first edition, as was the case with The Yellow Danger/China in Arms.  The cuts to The Purple Cloud and The Last Miracle were

relatively minor, but The Lord of the Sea was slashed by nearly a third, including the entire  prologue.  Inexplicably, the revised edition of The Last Miracle was renumbered as originating from notebook II.

            The novel itself, like The Yellow Danger, incorporates contemporary events and issues into the plot, mixing in elements common to much future war fiction of the day.  (At one point the European powers combine their fleets and attempt to invade England while the English fleet is spending itself in futile attacks upon the hero's sea forts.)  Shiel described the novel to Carl Van

Vechten as another of his demonstrations of the land nationalization theories of Henry George (1839-1897), which were first set out in George’s Progress and Poverty, (1879.) 

            One of the contemporary elements woven into the plot has led to a great deal of controversy.  When Shiel wrote the novel in 1898-1900 there was a relative wave of anti-Semitism convulsing Europe, ultimately leading to thousands of Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe.  Many settled in England, though most continued on to America.  While England remained a relative safe haven, even there public concerns arose over the "alien" immigrant question.  Shiel coupled the contemporary anti-Semitic movement with another recent movement, Political Zionism.  Modern Political Zionism is generally credited to Theodor Herzl, author of The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question, (1896.)

            In Lord Shiel postulates that the real anti-Semitic movements in Europe would get worse and result in the complete expulsion of Jews from the continent to England, leading to further convulsions there.  The hero of the novel, Richard Hogarth, is wrongfully imprisoned for murder by a newly arrived Jewish landlord.  In prison he contemplates the state of affairs in the world and reaches the same conclusion as Henry George.  As stated by the reviewer for Frank Harris' The Candid Friend (July 13, 1901) at 445:


                        ...Hogarth...realizes, actually realizes as an inspired enthusiast,

                        that the land is the common property of mankind as is the air            

                        or sea.... He makes one of the most ingenious escapes in all

                        fiction from prison; becomes the possessor of immense wealth;

                        and sets about forcing his land theory on the world by making

                        himself lord of the sea.  You can revel in breathless excitement

                        from beginning to end of this rushing book.  There is a wealth

                        of plot, an almost rank luxuriance of incident:  Mr. Shiel literally

                        flings his panting reader from astounding event to astounding

                        event, shaving impossibility with a most dexterous skill. 

                        Yet, for all its extravagance, the book gives one to think.; and

                        Mr. Shiel's amazing madmen are persons of the most ingenious


            From his position of power as Lord of the Sea, enforced by a series of huge armored forts anchored at the trading crossroads of the oceans, Hogarth becomes regent of England, orders land reform there, buys Palestine from Turkey for the Jews on condition of common ownership

of the land on the Henry George model, and evicts them from England to force their return.  He is then betrayed, most of the sea forts sunk by treachery, discovers himself to be a Jew, and joins the new exodus to Palestine where Hogarth is recognized as the Messiah returned to lead Israel, by example, in the redemption of the world.

            The 1901 version of the book was widely and usually favorably reviewed.  W. T. Stead gave it an extensive 3 page notice as one of two "Books of the Month" in his Review of Reviews,  August, 1901, 201-203.  On August 15, 1901 Shiel wrote Stead thanking him for the expansive review.  In a postscript he added:


            P.S. I don’t believe that land nationalization would mean the

                        millennium: but that every act of private or public justice is a

                        step in that direction: and that so great an act of justice would

                        be a great stride in that direction.  For such as you and me,

                        isn’t the question thus: “is it just?”  [W. T. Stead papers,

                        Churchill Archives, Cambridge]    


             The revised version (NY: Knopf, 1924; London: Gollancz, 1929) drew similar praise.  Perhaps the most interesting review of the 1920s text came from Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op.  In “The Gutting of Couffignal,” first published in Black Mask, December, 1925, Hammett’s tough detective settles himself down for a long night’s watch with a book grabbed off the shelf:


                                    The book was called The Lord of the Sea, and had to do

                        with a strong, tough and violent fellow named Hogarth whose

                        modest plan was to hold the world in one hand.  There were

                        plots and counterplots, kidnapings, murders, prisonbreakings,            

                        forgeries and burglaries, diamonds large as hats and floating

                        forts larger than [the island of] Couffignal.  It sounds dizzy here,

                        but in the book it was as real as a dime.           

                                    Hogarth was still going strong when the lights went out.


            It was not until after WWII that charges of anti-Semitism arose, most vehemently by Sam Moskowitz, first in "Shiel and Heard" in Science Fantasy, Vol 17, #50, Dec 1961, 95-112,

revised as "The World, the Devil and M. P. Shiel" in Explorers of the Infinite, Cleveland & NY: World Pub. Co., 1963, 142-156.  Moskowitz continued his attack  in "Anti-Semitism: The Day of the Messiah" in Strange Horizons: The Spectrum of Science Fiction, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976, 22-49.  Moskowitz's opinions were disputed by other scholars, particularly the late R. D. Mullen in a series of reviews in Science Fiction Studies, two of which have been posted on line at the SFS web page at SFS, #11, Vol. 4, Pt 1, March 1977 [review of Strange Horizons] and at SFS, #13,  Vol. 4, Pt 3, November 1977 [review of the Gregg Press ed. of The Purple Cloud]. 

Unfortunately, Mullen's review of the Arno Press edition of Lord of the Sea in SFS #6, Vol 2, pt 2, July 1975, 186-187, has not yet been posted on line.

            Mullen’s spirited rebuttals did not impress Moskowitz a bit, who elaborated his arguments further in "The Dark Plots of One Shiel" in M. P. Shiel in Diverse Hands, 57-67.  The same collection includes Ben Indick's essay, "Villain, Vaudevillian and Saint: The Literary Tradition as a Source for the Jew in Shiel", at 357-368.   Indick concludes part of the problem results from the extensive cuts from the 1901 text which eliminates much of the color and context from the novel.  [I bought most of Moskowitz's Shiel collection at the Sotheby’s auction in NYC in 1999.  It included the English first edition.]

            For those interested in more information on Shiel, the best introductions to his horror, detective & mystery short stories are the two Arkham House collections, Xélucha & Others (1975) and Prince Zaleski & Cummings King Monk (1977). Xélucha & Others only recently went out of print, but  Zaleski & Monk is still available.  The new edition of Shapes in the Fire has some of the same stories as Xélucha, but the Arkham edition followed Shiel’s revised texts, while Shapes showcases Shiel’s most elaborate prose, including “Vaila”, the original version of “The House of Sounds.” 

            Besides "The House of Sounds" (a particular favorite of Lovecraft, Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith & many others) Xélucha & Others also contains "Many A Tear".  It is not really a fantasy, but may be a key story in understanding Shiel.  In an unpublished letter to the English writer & critic W. H. Chesson (1870-1953) Shiel identified it as the only story he deemed worthy of note out of his collection, The Pale Ape (1911). (This is one of approximately 40 of Shiel's letters to Chesson at the HRC .)  The story harkens back to Shiel's long standing obsessions with biblical themes, especially The Book Of Job. (If God is good, why is it that evil befalls the righteous while the sinner goes unpunished?) His father was a lay preacher & for years father & son would read chapters from the Bible together. Shiel claimed to know it by heart, and once responded to a critic who described his prose as obscure:


                        "...the aim of my rather elaborate way of writing is the attainment

                        of an elaborate simplicity that can be called biblical;...:but of course

                        it is an elaborate naivety, highly artificial, an artist's simplicity, not

                        the simplicity of Simple Simons who write 'He was a tall, dark,

                        handsome man', but a success in expressing vividly, briefly, in simple

                        phrases pregnant with a plain grace, by the skin of one's teeth, and

                        by the wit of one's mother, concepts which it is all but impossible to

                        express in any phrases..." (Letter to the editor, The Times Literary

                        Supplement, April 9, 1931, page 288.)


            Shiel's finest short story was probably "Dark Lot of One Saul". (Also in Xélucha & Others.)  Like "Many A Tear" it can be read as another meditation on Job.  The principal character, James Dowdy Saul (combining the first & middle names of Shiel’s father and grandfather), suffers through incredible trials even unto impending death, alone in a dark cavern below the waves, before finding spiritual redemption.  Saul thanks God at the end for the blessing of even the life he has suffered, "for the Joy of Thy secret, is more than the rose, exceeding utterance." 

            The trials a typical Shiel character goes through are harsh, indeed, often enough to blast the most hardy soul.  R. D. Mullen described Shiel as “one of the most God-ridden of men” and found his great theme to be "existential horror", but the recurring theme I find at the heart of Shiel's best work is the spiritual redemption which is usually found at the end of those rocky journeys.  As Adam Jeffson proclaims at the end of The Purple Cloud "the one Motto proper to the whole race of Man, was always, and remains, even this: 'Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.'" There are an awful lot of descriptions of corpses & other unpleasantries before Jeffson reaches that realization.  He is finally only redeemed from his madness by the love of a woman.  I find it telling that Lovecraft praised the first half of Cloud with all its dark horror, while dismissing the ending with Adam (and Mankind's) ultimate redemption through love and faith.  I think that defines the philosophical difference between the two writers in a nutshell.  

            It is interesting to contrast Adam Jeffson’s redemption from madness in The Purple Cloud with the moral dissolution of John Hardy, the nominal hero of The Yellow Danger.  Unlike Jeffson, Hardy spurns his last chance at spiritual redemption through the love of a woman and allows himself to be consumed by his hatred and lust for vengeance.  After defeating the hosts of Asia by drowning tens of millions and infecting survivors with a new black death which will kill hundreds of millions more, "He was no longer sane.  His hand was thicker than itself in brother's blood.  His final hour of darkness and tragedy was hasting to meet his life.  All his sky was an ink of clouds.  Now again he tarried cowering in Gethsemane."  Hardy dies soon after in a senseless duel and never sees the bright new world Shiel predicts for Mankind at the end of the novel. 

            Even after a century Shiel is worth rereading.  He considered himself a writer of ideas, rather than just an entertainer.  Though many of his ideas have been rejected by history, like his advocation of George’s land nationalization theories, his work offers fascinating glimpses into the social, scientific and philosophical debates of his times.  Besides, he was a grand storyteller and a  master stylist, capable of extraordinary writing even in what he considered his hackwork.  At his best his prose approaches pure poetry.  




Copyright © 2001, 2004 by John D. Squires

Used with permission of the author.


Return to M. P. Shiel at Selected Authors of Supernatural Fiction