21 April 2010

The Purple Cloud (1901) - the book of the moment

All the recent news about the volcanic ash cloud over Europe and consequent turmoil and disruption were like a science fiction or Doomwatch story--it brought to mind the great post apocalyptic fantasy by M.P. Shiel The Purple Cloud. Published in 1901 and revised in 1929, it has appeared in many editions (a US hardback cover below) including pulp paperbacks. The first edition is the best but rather rare, especially in collectable condition. I am grateful for M.Stone and J.Baxter for sending me an image from Paris of what looks like a very decent example.

M.P. Shiel (1865-1947) was a British writer of Irish mulatto parentage. His fantasy and supernatural fiction has a dedicated cult following but he is also known for his 'radium age' SF and his strange and alluring detective and mystery fiction. Bookride will deal with him in greater depth later but his Purple Cloud seems especialy prescient right now. It concerns the first man to reach the North Pole - he returns to find all life on earth has been destroyed by a poisonous gas realised from volcanoes and explores the world like the traditional 'accursed wanderer'. He does not take it well and turns to total decadence and drugs, burning entire cities down for his own amusement…until at last he discovers another human… slightly more apocalyptic than holiday makers stuck on the Costa del Sol admittedly. His prose style is well regarded - some however say that Shiel's writing was as purple as his cloud-here is a flavour of it from this work:
“For oftentimes, both waking and in nightmare, I did not know on which orb I was, nor in which age, but felt my being adrift in the great gulf of space and eternity and circumstance, with no bottom for my consciousness to stand upon, the world all mirage and a strange show to me, and the frontiers of dream and waking lost.”

He was much admired by fellow writers such as Wells, Machen, E.F. Benson, Rebecca West, Carl Van Vechten, Dashiell Hammett ('a magician...') Ellery Queen, August Derleth, J.B. Priestley etc., Hugh Walpole said of him "A flaming genius! At his best he is not to be touched, because there is no one else like him." His values are high. An indifferent rather worn example is offered at $1200, a fairly decent presentation copy at an adventurous £2500 but a thousand pound note would not be out of the question for an uninscribed sharp and fresh looking example.
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