. . . M. P. Shiel

. . .

The twentieth century established its characteristic tone in 1901 with publication of the two sickest novels the English language had yet produced: Henry James's The Sacred Fount and M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud.

I don't know what to counsel for the former, but patience is counseled for the latter, since it lurches off like Jules Verne or something. Be assured: the mood then sinks like a pearl through Prell, from H. G. Wellsian to Edgar Allen Poetic and down, down, down to a really bad mood.

In the purple cloud, Shiel not only foresaw Prince's classic breakthrough soundtrack album of the 1980s but also the neutron bomb. More than forty years before Little Boy dropped, the novel described what a modern reader can only interpret as world-girdling fallout and radiation poisoning.

And what does the Last Man on Earth do after the proto-neutron-bomb delivers all that prime real estate intact into his hands? Well, what does anyone do with unlimited power? Blow things up real good! As a tribute to the eternal domitability of the human spirit, the book's only rival is Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To...; as a nightmare of premonitory guilt, I don't think it has any rival at all.

Not sure why the Bingo-Bango-Bongo-I-don't-want-to-leave-the-Congo redemptive ending didn't bug me more. Like a lot about The Purple Cloud, it reminded me of Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, which bugged me lots. Maybe it's because Shiel's version of Eve comes by her puddin'-headedness natural, having been raised by wild dust motes. Maybe it's because the relationship is played dysfunctionally enough to fit into the rest of the story. Or because the hero backslides and foreslides so often that I don't have to take his "ultimate" redemption at full CA value.... Had to end somewhere, after all. Everything does.


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