book reviews by Althea

The Purple Cloud – MP Shiel *

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The Purple Cloud
The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Stories from this time period love having some sort of introductory framing device. This one has to be the most convoluted I’ve encountered: the author tells us that he has received a letter from a dying friend, a hypnotist. Accompanying the letter was a notebook, which the hypnotist says contains a transcription of the trances of one of his patients. While in trance, the patient psychically travels in time, but rather than directly observing events, reads manuscripts. This story is a manuscript she ‘read’ while her consciousness was cast into the future. The future manuscript is the account set down by a member of an expedition which hoped to be first to reach the Pole…

After the introductory bit…

The first quarter of the book is a Polar Expedition narrative. A significant award has been offered to the first man – and the first man only – to reach the Pole. For some reason, there’s no discussion of the possibility of a team agreeing to share the reward. So – the conniving and backstabbing involved in positioning to be first is significant. Meanwhile, a preacher rails against the endeavor, saying that God does not intend Man to plumb these mysteries. And of course, once they set forth, there are the normal, but terrible, rigors of travelling through the polar regions. Only one man will survive…
I found this first part of the book to be quite entertaining… and also historically illuminating into the attitudes of the time, when the North Pole had not yet been attained, and the popular consciousness was filled with the ongoing efforts.

When the sole survivor makes his lone way back from the Pole, it is only to discover that while he was alone in the arctic regions, some terrible disaster has struck. First he discovers the odd corpses of animals… and smells a strange odor. Gradually, the reality sets in: nothing alive is to be found.
This middle half of the book is EXTREMELY similar to Mary Shelley’s ‘The Last Man,’ (…), which was published in 1826. (‘The Purple Cloud’ came out in 1901.) I freely admit that I found ‘The Last Man’ to be overly lengthy, overly detailed, and ultimately tedious, as it recounted the solitary wanderings of the titular character. This section of ‘The Purple Cloud’ is similarly lengthy, detailed and tedious, and shares the ‘travelogue’-like quality of the narrative with the earlier work – but with the addition of repeated assumptions of Western cultural superiority. In addition, the main character – never a ‘good’ person to start with, goes mad. While insanity brought on by solitude is believable, the character’s state of mind isn’t really all that well drawn, and rather than being drawn into his madness, I ended up just finding his courses of action peculiar and baffling. From a technical/logistical standpoint, the events are preposterous to the point of being absurd. Still, while flawed, this part of the book was interesting.

The last quarter of the book brings it down to one star.
(Possible Spoilers Ahead… if you don’t want to know where the book goes from here, don’t read on…)

(view spoiler)

And that’s it… it never comes back around to the framing device or makes any commentary on it.

Apparently, there is more than one version of this novel. From the wiki:

“The novel exists in three distinct texts. It was first published as a serial, with illustrations by J. J. Cameron, in The Royal Magazine, Vol V, #27-#30, Vol VI, #31-32, January – June, 1901. This is the shortest version, and was photo-offset in Volume I of A. Reynolds Morse’s monumental series, The Works of M. P. Shiel (1979–1983).[3]

The original book text was published in London by Chatto & Windus in September 1901. This is the longest version, and is considered by many to be the preferred text.[4][5] The 1901 text was reprinted in London by Tartarus Press in 2004 in a superb edition with all the Cameron illustrations from the serial and a new Introduction by Brian Stableford.[6] Hippocampus Press included the 1901 text, but without the illustrations, in an omnibus volume, The House of Sounds and Others, edited by S. T. Joshi (2005).[7][8][9] The 1901 text was also used in the edition published in 2012 in the Penguin Classics series with a new Introduction by John Sutherland.[10]

Shiel revised the novel in the 1920s, by tightening the language, rather than changing the plot. This version was first published in London by Victor Gollancz Ltd. (1929), and in New York by Vanguard Press (1930).[11] This, the final version, was the text most commonly reprinted in numerous subsequent editions.”

I’m not sure which version I read (the free-on-Amazon one:…), but it was very long, and non-illustrated.

Read for Post-Apocalyptic Book Club.

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