RARE BOOK GUIDE - THE RUNNERS, THE RIDERS & THE ODDS

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.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nigel --got one word for you

Eyjafjallajokull!

Check out these images from Boston News site and you will see it is like something from the SF racks---

http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/04/more_from_eyjafjallajokull.html?camp=localsearch%3Aon%3Atwit%3Abigpic

Jazzer

Edwin Moore said...

Shiel is completely new to me Nigel many thanks. What a great cover that is - and congratulations on resisting a Hendrix reference!

Anonymous said...

Can I plug the Tartarus Press who do good quality reprints of Shiel's books although, sadly, The Purple Cloud is now out of print.

Bookride said...

Thanks Edwin--you might find him rewarding, you quite often see his short stories in anthologies esp those edited by Gawsworth. He claimed to be the King of Redonda an uninhabited island near his birthplace of Montserrat--you might have heard of the whole Redonda thing...

jellynewt said...

The Bison edition of The Purple Cloud is still in print, I think.
Most people rate the Purple Cloud as Shiel's best work. Some of his other material has dated rather badly, in that his racism is not acceptable to modern readers. He's the author who made the term 'yellow peril' popular...

Woodside Skulk said...

For more "name dropping" about similar writer's see my blog. I wouldn't usually be so self-promoting but "The Purple Cloud" is included in my top ten best horror books and I've a link to Bookride on my page. I might also say that I don't believe that disagreeable content is any sound reason to dismiss a book, or any work of art for that matter, out of hand. By such reasoning, and it's an obvious and extreme example to be sure, no one would read "Mien Kampf". Point being: we needn't agree with or adopt the worldview of a particular writer or artist in order to appreciate or indulge in their work, no matter how abhorrent, in retrospect, it may be. Personally, although, by my own admission no racist, I find these so-called racist elements, although admittedly unsettling even distasteful, do, for better or worse, add a flavor of the period depicted: one alien to me. In my opinion anyway, Shiel's writing far outstrips Hitler's fantasy prose, in case you were wondering.

Woodside Skulk said...

I also would like to put in a good word for the Tartarus Press edition of this book. I read it first in the Warner Paperback Library edition, soon after picking it up not knowing what it was. It is a book that begs re-reading and, therefore, a more permanent copy for your collection. Although out of print, the Tartarus Press edition can still be obtained for reasonable sums. You might even contact the publishers directly via their website, who knows? they might have a copy left kicking around.

Anonymous said...

I do have an Allison & Busby first edition paperback of this book, dated 1901. The bottom of the front cover says; 'A novel of "tremendous power" - H.P. Lovecraft'
I am offering it for sale at £900 but a reasonable offer over £600 will be accepted. write to:
skymorningstar@hotmail.com. subject: M.P.Shiel

Professor Zaleski said...

Re Alison and Busby paperback. First clue is HP Lovecraft was 11 in 1901--second clue will be the ISBN number (came in about 1969). Third is that you can buy the book for 100th of your low price on Amazon, ABE etc., Go to the bottom of the class!