Review of The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel
The Academy, October 19, 1901, p. 361
ONE of the laudatory press-criticisms of a previous work by Mr. Shiel, printed at the beginning of the present volume, runs tersely thus: "Will he last?" It is a pretty situation, which time will answer. But we may assert that nothing could be madder, giddily and gorgeously madder, than The Purple Cloud. And, at the same time, nothing so mad could well have more method in its madness. Mr. Shiel has apparently set out to be more sensational than anybody ever before was, and he is handsomely succeeding. The Lord of the Sea had its shocks, thrills, and mortal perturbations - it was a gentle sedative compared to The Purple Cloud. In The Purple Cloud he merely conceives the destruction of all human, and nearly all brute life on the globe, save one man and one girl - that is all.
On the last page we have these two to commence their divine mission of repopulating the planet. If Mr. Shiel had no talent, it would not occur to us to criticise such a fiction. But he has a remarkable literary gift, and a power of imagination capable of withstanding even the inexcusably severe strain which he puts upon it. The first half of the book held us, and the last half was not tedious. We are bound in honesty to make the admission, and having made it, we cannot of course launch that sweeping and utter condemnation which such madness, such exorbitancy, such screeching, when considered in the abstract, seem to merit. Mr. Shiel is diabolically clever in the contrivance of his machinery, and an example of his cleverness is the dodge by which he convinces us that we may actually read a full account by an eye-witness of something that is still in the womb of the future. Most novelists of the prophetic school shirk this difficulty. Mr. Shiel faces it with considerable skill. His explanation of the origin of the seismic-cosmic catastrophe is also highly ingenious. Another of his qualities is that, far from insisting on the sensational aspects of the invented events, he continually turns to the psychological aspects of them, in regard to the hero. His accounts of the gradual growth of the hero's love of solitude, of the hero's sudden discovery that he could only keep sane by devoting himself to some great work, and of the hero's murderous anger when he finds out that he is not, after all, alone on earth, disclose a very genuine and persuasive imagination. Nor does he fail when he attempts the gaudy. An instance of this is on pages 236-7, where the hero, in making electric power at a generating station, does more than he thinks for. You must imagine London at dusk, peopled by some millions of corpses, simultaneously stilled by death in the varied acts of life:
I hurried out, the station still running, got into the car, and was off to look for a good electric one, of which there are hosts in the streets, in order at least to clean up and adjust the motor that night. I drove down three by-streets, till I turned into Euston-road, but I had no sooner reached it than I pulled up - with sudden jerk - with a shout of astonishment.
In the literary way, the best thing in the book is a truly distinguished description of Constantinople. The worst feature is the naïve heroine, with her entirely unconvincing speculations upon the nature of the civilisation of which she saw only the ruins. Mr. Shiel, when he chooses, can write admirably; but he often chooses to write with senseless "finery". Lastly, the interest of the story, instead of waxing as the tale proceeds, wanes. These, together with the central crude intention to startle and appal, are the sins of the work - a work as to which the worst that can be said of it is that it is abundantly clever enough to be amusing.
That cursed street was all lighted up and gay! and three shimmering electric globes, not far apart, illuminated every feature of a ghastly battle-field of dead.
And there was a thing there, the grinning impression of which I shall carry to my grave: a thing which spelled and spelled at me, and ceased, and began again, and ceased, and began again, and spelled at me. For, above a shop which faced me was a flag, a red flag with white letters, fluttering on the gale the words: "Metcalfe's Stores": and beneath the flag stretched right across the house, was the thing which spelled, letter by letter, in letters of light: and it spelled two words, deliberately, coming to the end, and going back to recommence:
And that was the last word of civilised Man to me, Adam Jeffson - its final counsel - its ultimate gospel and message - to me, my God! Drink Roboral!. . . It was one of those electrical spelling advertisements, worked by a small motor commutator driven by a works-motor, and I had now set it going.
Transcribed by Victor A. Berch
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