Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Purple Cloud

The Purple CloudThe Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Those who know me know that I self-identify as a loner. But a loner with a social side. So a novel about what it is to be utterly alone (as in everyone else in the human race has died off) could seem like the perfect segue to delightful flights of fancy. But I did mention I have a social side. Shiel may have had a social side, but if his protagonist, Adam Jeffson, is any mirror of him, Shiel must have been quite aloof; borderline sociopathic.

Shiel is an interesting, if scandalous, person. His biography - some of it his own fault, some of it just the circumstances he was born into - reads like a bad decadent soap opera. Arthur Machen said that he wasn't sure that Shiel knew that there was such a thing as "right" and "wrong". Again, judging from The Purple Cloud, I'd have to agree with Machen's assessment.

Shiel is (or was) a fully capable writer. His description of Turkey after the worldwide apocalypse are exquisite. The (pre-apocalyptic) narrative about the medium, Mary Wilson, is incredibly well-written. The description of her exercising of her gifts is fascinating. The characterization is strong and the writing downright mystical itself.

As we read on to the portion regarding the Arctic expedition (which was all the style, back then), we learn that the narrator is, in fact, a homicidal . . . well, maniac isn't the best word. Let's say he has homicidal inclinations (which he carries out). Maybe we should have guessed this earlier when we discovered that Jeffson's fiancee had an unhealthy fixation with poisoning people. Or maybe that little tidbit is there to make us feel better about Jeffson himself, in comparison. Yes, he shot someone in cold blood, but he didn't poison them! Or maybe, just maybe, Machen's assessment of the book's author was spot on.

In the long run, it doesn't matter, since everyone but Jeffson dies and he spends the next several years and the majority of the novel visiting exotic places, burning them all to the ground, and possibly (though it's never 100% clear, just 95%) having sex with corpses. Did I mention Machen's words about Shiel?

There follows a long struggle between absolute and utter decadence and a God complex. The book becomes very thin, at spots, in the middle. Then Shiel picks up on some strange and compelling idea that I had not considered. For example, Jeffson finds (surprise!) lots of corpses. Thousands of corpses. He is squeamish about stepping on them (but as noted, not about making sweet love to his dead fiancee's partially rotting, partially mummified body), but they become a routine sight. Then, just when you think you are about to be bored out of your skull (no pun intended), you find that you are reading about the evidences of the manner in which these people, faced with a known extinction, react not to the threat, but to one another. It's a varied set of reactions, and Shiel illustrates these variances in the positioning of the dead vis-a-vis one another (and their potential refuges from the purple cloud). The novel, at these points, becomes a primer on human psychology, and a compelling one at that. Shiel's portrayal of the remnants of civilization (i.e., piles and piles of dead bodies) who died due to debauchery and violence, when threatened with oncoming mass extinction, presages later zombie-apocalypse scenarios where most of humanity had more to fear from each other than from the real threat. He paints a horrifying scene, without showing the actual horror as it happens. My reactions to these sorts of "pivots" in the meta-narrative of the plot were sometimes emotionally deep and complex, as I thought of how I might react to such a threat. Impressive bit of writing, that.

The central theme of the book, the inner struggle that Jeffson comes to, is this:

Must I not, in time, cease to be a man, and become a small earth, precisely her copy, extravagantly weird and fierce, half-demoniac, half-ferine, wholly mystic - morose and turbulent - fitful, and deranged, and sad - like her?

Nevertheless, a sort of redemption might be available to him, if he will only allow it. You will have to discover this yourself. Suffice it to say that Jeffson is not what I would term "normal". It's quite a bumpy journey to the end.

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