Shiel, M P

Tagged: Author

(1865-1947) Montserrat-born author with his surname given as Shiell, in the UK from around 1883. He began writing fiction in the late 1880s and continued intermittently until his death, his first work of genre interest being "Huguenin's Wife" for Pall Mall Magazine in April 1895; most of his short fiction of fantastic interest was published 1896-1901. Shiel was intensely concerned with style per se, incorporating poetic techniques into narrative prose; he also used sensational adventure fiction as a vehicle for idiosyncratic ideas about Economics, science and Religion. As a result, his work is not to every reader's taste, although it was praised highly by such critics and fellow writers as Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), Dorothy L Sayers (1893-1957) and Rebecca West (1892-1983).

Since Shiel matured in England during the fin de siècle, it is not surprising that his early work shows highly romantic subject matter and an obsessive concern with decorated prose, his models being mostly Edgar Allan Poe – specifically in the case of his early horror collection, Shapes in the Fire: Being a Mid-Winter's Nights Entertainment in Two Parts and an Interlude (coll 1896) – and mid-nineteenth-century French writers (see Decadence). Other early work includes extremely baroque detective short stories in Prince Zaleski (coll 1895) (see Eugenics), and further detective and horror fiction assembled as The Pale Ape (coll 1911). Although these stories, written in a lapidary style, were on the edge of being old-fashioned when they appeared, they are among the very best examples of their sort. Xelucha and Others (coll 1975) is a posthumous selection of Shiel's horror stories.

His noncommercial early work was composed at about the same time as two early novels in collaboration: The Rajah's Sapphire (1896) with W T Stead uncredited; and An American Emperor: The Story of the Fourth Estate of France (1897) uncredited, with Louis Tracy, comprising the first instalment of Tracy's Vansittart sequence, but largely by Shiel. He then shifted to serials for the popular press, three of them dealing with East-West wars. The first of them, The Yellow Danger (5 February-18 June 1898 Short Stories as "The Empress of the Earth: The Tale of the Yellow War"; 1898; rev vt The Yellow Danger: The Story of the World's Greatest War 1899; further vt China in Arms 1998), is a Future War tale in which a "yellow horde" (see Yellow Peril) invades Europe, under the malign leadership of Dr Yen How (a clear precursor of Sax Rohmer's Dr Fu-Manchu), but is devastated by a plague white men are immune to. The second, The Dragon (1 January-15 March 1913 Red Magazine as "To Arms!"; 1913; rev vt The Yellow Peril 1929; vt To Arms! 1995), specifically designates the opponents as Britain and China. Both novels are adventure stories in which the Yellow Peril – i.e., Chinese hordes – overwhelms the world by sheer quantity of manpower. Both, however, depart from the already stereotyped Yellow Peril story in seeing the quarrel between Orient and Occident as ultimately a spiritual matter, rather than economic, as Chinese and UK Supermen strive for domination. Both novels are developed along similar lines, basic ideas being: the horrors of war (depicted on such a colossal scale and with such sangfroid that some have seen Shiel's attitude as callous approval); a strange mixing of Nietzschean and Tolstoyan theories of history, in which supermen make history but are generated by their culture; a Spencerian survival of the fittest on a racial level (see Social Darwinism); and thinly veiled suggestions of Paranoia. Both books, aimed at a popular market, are sparsely written with no attempt at stylistic decoration. A third war novel, The Yellow Wave (1905), is a non-fantastic work based on the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).

Shiel's finest novel is however generally conceded to have been The Purple Cloud (January-June 1901 The Royal Magazine; 1901), an epic Last Man tale which was filmed, not very faithfully, as The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959). The protagonist survives by virtue of having reached the North Pole in a savage race for the vast reward being offered the first to achieve this goal, which he discovers to be a literal World-Tree, with indecipherable letters writhing around its great trunk, a message of planetary doom (he intuits) soon realized (see End of the World), as the eponymous cloud of hydrocyanic acid gas (see Poisons), liberated by vulcanism, has during his quest snuffed out all mammalian life south of him. He now embarks on a hugely prolonged trek through the post-Disaster ruins of the world, including corpse-ridden London, which he sets aflame, the first of many cities world-wide, in an ecstasy of guilt and rage that drives him mad. He is saved by a pure maiden, the last female, who calls herself Eve (see Adam and Eve). The novel expression of planetary anxiety runs directly counter to the happier strain of story that would blossom into Genre SF in America a few decades later. The Purple Cloud, despite its hysterical fustian, is an important early example of Fantastika addressing its central topic, which is the world as a whole.

The Lord of the Sea (1901; savagely cut 1924), almost as remarkable, is strongly based on Le Comte de Monte-Christo (28 August 1844-15 January 1846 Journal des Débats; 1844-1845 18vols; trans as The Count of Monte Cristo 1846 3vols) by Alexandre Dumas. It develops a network of mid-nineteenth-century sensational motifs – incredible coincidences, swapped babies, hidden identities, chance-found incredible wealth, documents in a trunk, festering revenges, elaborate Prison escapes, frustrated romance, Napoleonic megalomania – yet, though written to an aesthetic outdated for its time, it embodies that aesthetic with enormous élan and vitality. The essence of the book is a concept adapted from the work of the popular US economist Henry George (1839-1897): if certain individuals can hog the land, others can hog the sea. Building on this insight, one Hogarth, using the wealth plucked from a diamond-laden meteorite, builds sea forts and claims ownership of the oceans. The Lord of the Sea has been criticized as antisemitic, since it depicts a UK overrun by Jewish refugees from Continental pogroms, including unpleasant caricatures reminiscent of the stage Jew of earlier drama; other critics, however, have disputed this conclusion, referring to Shiel's anticipation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The Last Miracle (1906) – the third published (though probably first written) tale of this very loose thematic sequence of apocalyptic tales – concerns a plot to discredit Christianity with fake miraculous visions created by gigantic hologram-like devices.

After the first of the two important tales assembled in The Invisible Voices (coll 1935), "The Place of Pain Day" (1 May 1914 Red Magazine as "The Place of Pain"), about a natural water lens that shows horrors on the Moon – the second being "The Future Day" (12-15 March 1928 London Daily Herald as "In 2073 AD"), about life and love in a Pax Aeronautica world – Shiel wrote no sf until This Above All (1933; vt Above All Else 1943), which describes the contemporary adventures of a trio of immortals (see Immortality) made so by Jesus Christ, who is alive in Tibet. His last sf work, The Young Men are Coming! (1937), deals partly with contemporary social upheaval participated in by an advanced multiple-sexed Alien from Jupiter, who takes the side of science against superstition. The sf element here is much more sophisticated and imaginative than contemporary Genre SF, but is buried in a welter of eccentric social philosophy, and told in the decorated style of its author's youth. The result is at times almost unreadable.

With Shiel is associated the "Kingdom of Redonda". His sea-trader father (Shiel claimed) laid claim to the small uninhabited Island of Redonda, near Antigua, and in a ceremony there crowned young Matthew king. On Shiel's death the "crown" passed to John Gawsworth, who as King Juan I awarded titles of nobility to persons associated with Shiel, including Sayers, West, Edward Shanks and Dylan Thomas (1914-1953). On Gawsworth's death the spoofery became pointless.

Shiel has received some attention outside fantastic fiction as a writer of partial black ancestry, and as perhaps the first UK novelist of Caribbean origin. [EFB/JC]

see also: Medicine; Messiahs; Politics; Race in SF; Villains; Weapons.

Matthew Phipps Shiel

born Plymouth, Montserrat, British West Indies: 20 July 1865

died Chichester, West Sussex: 17 February 1947

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