H.P. Lovecraft was not only a writer of weird fiction, but a voracious reader of the genre, as evidenced by his classic essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature. He collected a voluminous library of weird titles, many of which have not been available for almost a century. In recent years, Hippocampus Press has been reprinting a selection of these in a series descriptively named “Lovecraft’s Library” edited by the most awesome authority on Lovecraft, S.T. Joshi. The first of these I read was the magnificent book by A. Merritt, The Metal Monster, and I’ve been curious to see what other members of the series are like. The next one which intrigued me was M.P. Shiel’s The House of Sounds and Others (cover of the Hippocampus edition):
Matthew Phipps Shiel (1865-1947) is a bit hard to figure. He was a prolific author of short stories and novels of many genres, but also had a number of unflattering characteristics, including the 2008 revelation that he served a prison stint for a relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter. In fact, one finds hints of this even in some of his writing, which caught my attention and raised my eyebrows even before I read his Wikipedia entry. Nevertheless, his weird tales have a poetic, dreamlike quality about them that makes them fascinating to read.
The House of Sounds and Others collects a number of Shiel’s most well-known stories, from anthologies Shapes in the Fire (1896), The Pale Ape (1911) and his novel The Purple Cloud (1901). The stories are of varied types; I summarize them a bit below:
Xélucha: The narrator describes a late-night encounter with a woman who he may have met before — and is supposed to be dead.
The Pale Ape: A young woman becomes a tutor to a young nobleman at isolated Hargen Hall. The master keeps apes as pets, and the tutor begins to hear tales about the ape which died, and now haunts the grounds at night…
The Case of Euphemia Raphash: A clever interpretation of the Sherlock Holmes style of tale! Emphemia Raphash has been murdered, and her brother, Dr. Arnot Raphash is determined to find her killer.
Huguenin’s Wife: The narrator is desperately summoned by his friend Huguenin to his home on a secluded Greek isle. Huguenin’s wife has died, but she may not have been human to begin with.
The House of Sounds: A true masterpiece, which may very well be called Shiel’s version of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. The narrator is summoned (as happens a lot in Shiel’s stories) to his friend’s isolated home on an island off of the northern end of Norway. Battered constantly by the waves, the house is drowned their overpowering roar. Communication in the din is mostly through written notes. The narrator learns about a blood-curse on the family and their heriditary home, and its final act is being counted down by an explicable machine in the bowels of the dwelling. The sense of impending doom is palpable in the tale.
The Great King: A tale is told of ancient Babylon, and the king Nebuchadnezzar. When the king’s wife recovers from a sleeping sickness during which she was presumed dead, the king feels that a pall has been cast over his marriage. He takes drastic action, which sets a chain of events in motion which leads to madness and death.
The Bride: A rather unremarkable, but chilling, tale of jealousy and supernatural revenge.
The Purple Cloud: Shiel’s novel-length weird classic! A man joins a race to be the first to arrive at the North Pole. He succeeds, and is the sole survivor to return from the expedition. Nobody awaits his return to civilization, however: his act has possibly precipitated a global calamity which has killed all animals which breath air. The story follows the man in his downward spiral into madness, faced with the end of all of man’s works.
The stories are a bit mixed in quality; I found Huguenin’s Wife, The House of Sounds, and particularly The Purple Cloud to be the best in the collection.
The Purple Cloud stands out to me as a wonderfully haunting tale. Superficially, it sounds like a straightforward apocalyptic tale, but there are hints of even more extreme weirdness which add to Cloud‘s eerie atmosphere. For instance, the narrator arrives at the North Pole in a near-delirious state, and it is not unoccupied. A supernatural landmark is present at the Pole which is described only briefly but hints at deeper, sinister, meaning.
The character development is surprisingly complex for a story which is essentially about a single character. On his race to the pole, the narrator describes events which suggest that he is not the most noble and upright man, and may even be considered somewhat of an anti-hero. His wanderings after the apocalypse are poetic and compelling, and his actions become more extreme and less sympathetic as his madness grows.
The method for exterminating the human race is ingenious itself. Shiel envisions a catastrophic volcanic eruption in the islands of southeast Asia which spew a lethal purple cloud of cyanide gas across the globe. Once again, weird fiction has been inspired by historical/scientific events: the tremendous 1883 eruption of Krakatoa spread volcanic ash around the globe which reflected sunlight and affected global climate; it is not hard to imagine such an eruption spreading toxic gas as well. Shiel specifically cites Krakatoa in his novel to justify his idea.
Lovecraft was quite fond of Shiel, and referred to his writing in Supernatural Horror in Literature:
Matthew Phipps Shiel, author of many weird, grotesque, and adventurous novels and tales, occasionally attains a high level of horrific magic. Xelucha is a noxiously hideous fragment, but is excelled by Mr. Shiel’s undoubted masterpiece, The House of Sounds, floridly written in the “yellow nineties,” and recast with more artistic restraint in the early twentieth century. His story, in final form, deserves a place among the foremost things of its kind. It tells of a creeping horror and menace trickling down the centuries on a sub-arctic island off the coast of Norway; where, amidst the sweep of daemon winds and the ceaseless din of hellish waves and cataracts, a vengeful dead man built a brazen tower of terror. It is vaguely like, yet infinitely unlike, Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. In the novel The Purple Cloud Mr. Shiel describes with tremendous power a curse which came out of the arctic to destroy mankind, and which for a time appears to have left but a single inhabitant on our planet. The sensations of this lone survivor as he realises his position, and roams through the corpse-littered and treasure-strewn cities of the world as their absolute master, are delivered with a skill and artistry falling little short of actual majesty. Unfortunately the second half of the book, with its conventionally romantic element, involves a distinct letdown.
I find myself more or less in agreement with Lovecraft’s assessment, though I am a bit more sympathetic to the second half of The Purple Cloud. Shiel’s work is quite fascinating and enjoyable overall, though a bit mixed in effectiveness.
One thing I find curious, from the introduction by S.T. Joshi. He suggests:
It is difficult to detect any clear influence of Shiel upon Lovecraft.
He does note that a massive door in The House of Sounds could have been a partial inspiration for a similar door in The Call of Cthulhu, and that the Arctic expedition in The Purple Cloud could have been inspiration for the Antarctic expedition in At the Mountains of Madness. But he makes no mention of what to me seems like the most obvious inspiration, in Huguenin’s Wife. The titular character is said to be a unearthly painter, and the narrator is presented at one point with her most horrifying masterpiece, of a monstrous creature which may or may not be based on life. This conceit strikes me as very much the same as that used by Lovecraft in his wonderful tale, Pickman’s Model.
So I wonder: did Joshi overlook this connection? Or am I missing something?