04 January 2013

The Purple Cloud (M.P. Shiel)

Written in 1901, The Purple Cloud is a grand, grotesque vision of near-future catastrophe--perhaps too floridly written for a general modern audience (Shiel never met an adjective he didn't like), but great fun for those with practice picking through the page-long sentences and piled-up dependent clauses of nineteenth-century fiction. I mean, there's a scene where the protagonist watched London burn by his hand whilst playing "Ride of the Valkyries," which image alone is worth the price of admission. (N.B. Said price for a public domain ebook is nil, though Penguin Classics recently came out with the charming edition at left.)

The story begins with a race to the North Pole, the richest man in the world having left his fortune to whoever first sets foot on the top of the world; via subterfuge and murder (this latter the work of his Lucrezia Borgia-emulating fiancée, the Countess Clodagh), physician Adam Jeffson joins a party of Englishmen bound for the Arctic wastes. A couple more shootings later, Adam reaches the much-sought goal--and is immediately sorry, being overcome with a Lovecraft-anticipating vision of "the Sanctity of Sanctities, the old eternal inner secret of the Life of this Earth, which is was a most burning shame for a man to see." Fleeing in terror, after some months he finds the expedition's ice-cutting ship . . . and all its crew stone dead.

Moving south, death is all he encounters: polar bears, mounds of birds, and humans of every race and country, all, he discovers, running in vain from the title violet vapor, whose cyanogenic, peach-blossom-smelling drift has cast a noxious swath across the earth--and left him the only living man on the planet.

And what does he do with his isolation? Well, as alluded to above, for a good chunk of the book he just sails around RAZING GREAT CITIES TO THE M*F*ING GROUND, moping be darned. Paris, Peking, Constantinople! He also builds himself a palace out of gold! I love it! Refreshing and weird to have a last man on earth who's kind of a jerk, right? It's Adam's unapologetic reign of destruction that lets me gloss over the rather clunkish allegory of the last fourth of the book (HINT HIS NAME IS ADAM) and just enjoy the madness.

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