M. P. Shiel:
Poet and Prophet
by Alan Gullette
"One of the most remarkable minds and imaginations
of our time... a poet and a prophet..."
-- Edward Shanks
Matthew Phipps Shiell was born on July 21, 1865 in Montserrat, West Indies. (He would drop the second "l" of his surname around 1886, when he began to publish.) His father, Matthew Dowdy Shiell, was of Irish descent, a ship-owner and shopkeeper who also practiced as a lay Methodist preacher. His mother -- of whom M. P. remained curiously silent in print -- was Priscilla Ann Blake, a mulatto. (New evidence suggests that M. P.'s father may also have been of mixed race.)
According to M. P.'s own rather fanciful account, after the union produced eight or nine daughters, his father was happy to have a male "heir" to his "kingdom" of Redonda. Originally Santa Maria la Redonda, the island is one of the smaller Leeward Islands near Antigua and was annexed by England in 1872 for its phosphate and guano deposits. The father laid claim to the island and objected to no avail; nevertheless, the "coronation" of M. P. Shiel as King Filipe took place on the youth's fifteenth birthday.
Young Phipps began writing at age eleven -- producing first a newspaper, then his first novel at age twelve, and a serial at age thirteen. He was educated first at Harrison College, Barbados. Later in London, he attended an interpreter's school at King's College. Apart from English he spoke seven languages (Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Polish, Spanish, and Hungarian) and, with the help of Sir Ernest Clark of the Royal Agricultural Society, was appointed Interpreter to the International Congress of Hygiene and Demography. (Sam Moskowitz points to these linguistic studies and experience in translating idioms as the spawning ground of his unique and "pyrotechnic" prose style.) After college Shiel tried medicine, but nearly fainted while witnessing a surgery. He taught mathematics for a year in Derbyshire, but this work was not to his liking, either (though math, with chemistry, remained a lifelong hobby).
At seventeen, Shiel discovered Poe -- "just when I had begun to smoke [tobacco], and the two smokes transported me . . . to Uranus, where I abode some time." As a result, he said, his first work, Prince Zaleski (1895) had in it "more Poe than Job." (Shiel listed the author of The Book of Job as "the greatest genius among writers who ever lived" and "the greatest poet who ever lived." On the same list Shiel included himself as "the best prose writer living.")
After age 20, Shiel lived primarily in London and Paris, where, according to E.F. Bleiler, he gravitated "toward the Bohemian fin-de-siècle extensions of the Aesthetic Movement," which included Arthur Machen, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson. He also travelled throughout Europe (particularly in Italy and Spain) before settling down in Horsham, in the county of Sussex, England.
Shiel married twice. Arthur Machen attended his first wedding, in 1898, to Lina (Carolina) Garcia Gomez, who bore a daughter; Shiel left them in Paris in 1903 and Lina died shortly thereafter. His second marriage was to Esther Lydia Furley and lasted from 1919-1929, when they agreeably parted ways. According to Shiel, Lydia "resembled both Lina and my mother." In the interim, Shiel had a daughter (and perhaps a son) by Elizabeth Price.
Dedicated to healthy living, Shiel listed mountaineering as one of his hobbies. He jogged six miles a day into his seventies. He also practiced some sort of deep-breathing exercises not unlike yogic pranayama and propounded them in essays that accompanied his novels. He preferred to sleep during the day and work at night, proclaiming, "I like the light of other suns better than ours."
During his long life Shiel wrote twenty-five novels and dozens of short stories. Most of them are romantic mysteries and fast-paced adventures, several dealing with world conquest. Others are distinctly supernatural or border on science fiction. Most are interspersed with discourses on his philosophy and sociology of the Overman. And most, regardless of subject matter, were written in Shiel's patented poetic or "purple" prose. In a review of the horror collection Shapes in the Fire (1896), Machen wrote "here is a wilder wonderland than Poe ever dreamt of." He wrote to Shiel and praised him for achieving what he himself had long attempted. The previous collection of stories Prince Zaleski (1895) -- whose title character is a rather macabre version of Poe's prototypical sleuth Auguste Dupin -- is described by Moskowitz as "Sherlock Homes in the House of Usher." Machen addressed the likeness to Poe thus: "It is Poe, perhaps, but Poe with an unearthly radiance." Not so impressed, Moskowitz refers to the style of the early stories as "berserk Poe with all genius spent."
Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901) is a classic and probably his masterpiece. After Mary Shelley's The Last Man, it was perhaps the first novel treatment of the "last man on earth" theme. H. G. Wells called it "colossal... [a] brilliant novel." The New York Post review declared him to be "A genius drunk with the hottest juices of our language." In general, praise of Shiel's work flowed in from high quarters. August Derleth dubbed him "the Grand Viscount of the Grotesque" and applauded his "refulgently fanciful imagination and magical command of the English language." Hugh Walpole reduced this to "a flaming genius!" -- adding, "He is not to be touched, because there is no one else like him." E. M. Benson called his work "a glorious excursion into the incredible." E. F. Bleiler's summary: "... his stories are a welter of stylistic sound effects, not to everyone's taste." Other admirers included Dorothy L. Sayers, Rebecca West, Dashiell Hammett, J. D. Priestley, Bertrand Russell, and L. P. Hartley. As Moskowitz pointed out, he was "a writer's writer" -- "His mad literary rhythms, seemingly improvised, like a jazz artist's at a jam session, were a bubbling fountain at which new techniques of phrasing could be drunk."
Shiel spent over a decade of his last years on a New Testament study entitled Jesus, which he described as "a truer translation of Luke" from the original Greek "in which is some detective work, proving for example, that the Apostle Paul was the Lazarus who in his anti-Sadducee craze for resurrection stayed four days in a tomb" and which set forth Shiel's own "religion of science" -- based on knowledge rather than hope ("ignorance"). He sent an early draft to H. G. Wells, whose brief but positive response is reproduced at this site (H. G. Wells to M. P. Shiel, 20 May 1937). He finished it five months before he died, but the manuscript remains unpublished and as much as half of it is lost.
After 1934 or 1935, Shiel received a government pension; but his last days in his Horsham cottage (which he named L'Abri, "The Shelter") must have been meagre. He died on February 17, 1947 at a hospital in Chichester, aged 81. At his funeral a week later, Georgian poet and essayist Edward Shanks eulogized Shiel as "a poet and a prophet ... in the Old Testament manner."
* * *
H. P. Lovecraft deemed "The House of Sounds" (the revision of the earlier story, "Vaila" ) Shiel's "undoubted masterpiece" (an Usheresque house with a brass dome and a family curse is set on a storm-swept island in the North Sea). Lovecraft also memorably dubbed "Xélucha" (1896) "a noxiously hideous fragment." Another favorite is "Dark Lot of One Saul" (1912), called by John Squires "Shiel's finest horror tale" and by Moskowitz "not only a masterpiece of science fiction but approaches literature" (a sailer thrown overboard by the Inquisition spends years in an underwater cavern and achieves God-realization). Moskowitz also favored the short story "The Place of Pain" (1914) (a natural lens formed by a pool of water reveals horrors on the moon) along with the early baroque horror story "Huegenin's Wife" (1895)(an artist's demonic subject appears in the flesh to wreak revenge). Of his longer work, most critics cite either The Purple Cloud or The Lord of the Sea (both 1901) as his best; in America, How the Old Woman Got Home (1927) was his best selling work.
In 1927, Paramount Pictures bought the film rights for The Purple Cloud; in the 1940s a dozen screenplays were produced, but no film. Sol C. Siegel of MGM bought the rights in 1957 and released The World, The Flesh, and the Devil in 1959, starring Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer. While entertaining (and controversial) in its own right, the film falls far short of Shiel's magnificent, prodigal epic.
Though most of Shiel's writings are out of print and hard to find, a few older editions are in print (e.g., the detective stories Prince Zaleski and Cummings King Monk from Mycroft & Moran, 1977). The Purple Cloud is in print in various editions (one may choose between the original, serialized text of 1901 and the revised Gollancz edition of 1929); a new edition of the complete 1901 book text along with the Royal magazine illustrations is forthcoming from Tartarus Press. Most in-print titles from various publishers and a posthumous edition of Shiel's final novel, The New King, are available from J. D. S. Books (see the J. D. S. Books Catalog maintained at this site. For a complete list of the primary publications of Shiel's books, with synoptic descriptions, see our Annotated Bibliography. For Shiel publishing news, see Publishing News on our front Shiel page.
First Posted: July 27, 1996
Last Updated: October 18, 2004.