Book Group Report: Purple

The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel

Continuing our Book Group selections inspired by colours.  At our June meeting it was time to nominate ‘purple’ books to read in August and discuss at the beginning of September.  Our initial shortlist was:

  • The Colour Purple by Alice Walker
  • Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (Wioletta being Polish for Violet)
  • Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Night of the Purple Moon by Scott Kramer (YA)

My pitch for the Wioletta Greg fell on deaf ears, the YA was discounted and several of the group had already read Alice Walker and the Adichie. So, we did a quick search for other ‘purple’ titles and came up with this classic from 1901 which can claim to be the first great SF novel of the 20th C, being first published in serial form..

Basically, (spoiler alert) Adam Jeffson joins an expedition to the North Pole, and through nefarious means becomes the first man to reach the Pole. He returns to discover that everyone is dead, killed by a purple cloud. He is doomed to travel Earth seeking other survivors, finds one – a young woman, but rather than be the new Adam and Eve, he goes even madder and tries to destroy everything. (end of spoiler alert). 

I have to say that it wasn’t a hit with our group. Several didn’t enjoy it at all, most of us skimmed the middle section, but we could appreciate how influential this novel was.  Also, it was very much a novel of three parts, and the first was by far the most exciting…

After a strange foreword, in which the novel is presented as a set of four notebooks sent to Shiel by his old friend Dr Browne who lives in Norfolk, the novel begins in London where Adam Jeffson is a doctor in Harley Street.  He is the fiancé of the Countess Clodagh, whose nephew is going on an expedition to the Arctic chasing an unclaimed prize of $175,000,000 for the first man to reach the north Pole. Clodagh would love to be married to a hero, and she tells Jeffson that her nephew Peters, who is to be the team’s doctor,  takes atropine, (belladonna). Jeffson tends to Peters, and he is recovering, only to relapse and perish by another ‘self-administered’ dose, Jeffson is invited to replace Peters. As he leaves, he receives a telegram from Clodagh:

“Be first – for me.”

The expedition leaves and it’s going well. There is much speculation about who will be in the sub-group who will make ‘the dash to the Pole’; Jeffson is not one of them. However, some of the team die, others are ill, and Jeffson goes on his own, with just his dogs as witnesses, he reaches the Pole.

Alone that same day I began my way southward, and for five days made good progress. On the eighth day I noticed, stretching right across the south-eastern horizon, a region of purple vapour which luridly obscured the face of the sun: and day after day I saw it steadily brooding there. But what it could be I did not understand.

Luckily, Adam is never fully immersed in the peach-blossom smelling cloud, although he is sick for some days and two of his dogs die. As he soldiers on, he comes across dead animals, and finally makes it to open water and their ship which was left well-provisioned. He sets sail, beginning to encounter abandoned ships, and always dead fish, creatures, and sometimes men. Reaching the Norwegian fjords, he smells something else:

… now I was conscious that, mingling with that delicious odour of spring-blossoms – profoundly modifying, yet not destroying it – was another odour, wafted to me on the wings of the very faint land-breeze: and  ‘Man,’ I said, ‘is decomposing’: for I knew it well: it was the odour of human corruption.

He makes it back to Britain, and changes from ship to train – for of course he can drive a train – and goes off around the country by rail.  This middle section of the book turned into a gruesome travelogue.  He ticks off the major cities and all the counties, finding everywhere full of bodies which the purple cloud has sort of preserved them from normal decay:

… flesh was everywhere, on the roofs of trains, cramming the interval between them, on the platforms, splashing the pillars like spray, piled on trucks and lorries, a carnal quagmire; and outside, it filled the space between a great host of vehicles, carpeting all that region of London. And all here that odour of blossoms, which nowhere yet, save on one vile ship, had failed…

Having scoured Britain, he travels to Europe, doing the same, ticking off countries and cities before finally settling in Turkey where he has another surprise before going totally mad. After his rather repetitive travels in the middle third of the novel, which got very tedious indeed, the novel got more interesting again.

This novel started off promisingly, with the ‘tontine’ style race to the Pole. (A tontine was a lottery style investment plan/scam in which the last surviving member scooped the pot, and was the subject of a 1955 novel by Canadian novelist Thomas B Costain called The Tontine, which happens to be one of my Dad’s favourite books.)  This section was by far the most engaging, despite the frequently florid language of the book, liberally laced with medical and scientific terms, and biblical and mythological references. In the Penguin Classics edition that I read John Sutherland tells how ‘Shiel was addicted to encyclopedias, manuals and glossaries of technical vocabulary,’ and his notes were indispensible to reading the novel.

Shiel, who hailed originally from Monserrat,  had hoped to become a doctor on his arrival in London, but, so Sutherland tells us in his entertaining introduction to the man and his career, an aversion to blood put paid to that idea. Shiel turned to journalism and then writing, producing crime and SF novels.  The Purple Cloud ‘s science is rather dodgy: gaseous hydrogen cyanide, deriving from Prussian Blue would be pale blue in colour rather than the purple of Shiel’s HCn – hydrocyanic acid.  Shiel’s world is also full of simple ‘liquid air engines’, which is how his protagonist can get around in any vehicle; an imagined invention he appropriated from speculative articles of the time.

I’m glad I’ve read this book, having first heard about it in Science Fiction: A Literary History, ed Roger Luckhurst, that I read and reviewed (here) for Shiny. I can’t say I’ll be in a hurry to read any more by this author, especially having discovered what a cad he was, (he spent 18 months in the Scrubs for having sex with the 12-year-old daughter of his lover, saying he was working for the government during this time!).  For anyone who can dissociate the man from his work, now I’ve warned you, this novel was interesting, and the extras from John Sutherland in this edition added a lot to the reading.  It also provoked quite a good book group discussion!  (7/10)


Source: Own copy

M.P. Shiel, The Purple Cloud (1901), Penguin Classics, paperback, 296 pages including extras.

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2 thoughts on “Book Group Report: Purple

  1. Interestingly, I have a copy of this lurking somewhere, though if I’d known about the author’s tendencies I might have thought twice… But I have skimmed your review a little to avoid spoilers and I expect I *will* read this one eventually!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      As v.late Victorian SF, it was interesting, and Shiel, although rightly imprisoned for an unforgiveable act, had an bizarre and interesting background in the W.Indies.

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