Reviewed by Jeff Gardiner
Tartarus Press have done us all a favour by reprinting Shiel's acknowledged fin-de-siecle masterpiece The Purple Cloud (1901). This publication goes back to the unrevised, original text and is the first to include the magazine illustrations by J.J. Cameron, which are expressive and stylish, even if they don't quite depict the true eccentricity of the prose.
The story told is a brilliant and timeless one. An ill-fated expedition to the North Pole unleashes a deadly purple vapour that leaves Adam Jeffson the last man on Earth, marauding through post-apocalyptic cities and burning them down for seventeen years until he meets a young girl, who becomes his Eve.
The novel begins as an adventure story with sublime descriptions and a descent into lunacy, until Jeffson awakens into the new world. The peach-smelling cloud spreads over the entire world, killing all people, animals and birds. Sailing single-handedly throughout the world, he encounters countries full of corpses, experiencing ‘that abysmal desolation of loneliness and sense of a hostile universe’: an unbearable pessimism that he must confront and deal with.
Exploiting the opportunity to become hedonistic and self-indulgent, Jeffson vows to ‘ravage and riot in my kingdoms’, becoming an embodiment of the overman. Thus he sets out on a programme of wanton and malicious destruction. He turns into a decadent proto-hippy, who enjoys the pleasures of opium, and takes sixteen years to build himself his perfect palace. It is in Constantinople that he realises he is not alone and he soon struggles with the conflict between cruelty and compassion.
The Purple Cloud is not science fiction, but a literary novel of Decadent and metaphysical philosophy written with an expansive vocabulary and biblical allusions, which are explored further in Brian Stableford’s erudite introduction. Shiel was a true stylist whose work is immensely rewarding and Tartarus should be congratulated for bringing out this edition ready for a whole new generation of readers.
Published by: Tartarus Press (£30). Website: www.tartaruspress.com