There has been no reasonably priced edition of M.P. Shiel’s classic uncanny dozen in recent years. So, Coachwhip - being one of the more reliable P.O.D. publishers – should be congratulated on filling this seminal space.
The fact that one has been allowed to grow at all is of little surprise. Mark Valentine has described Shiel’s language as ‘ornate’ and ‘arcane,’ (in his intro. to ‘The Collected Connoisseur’ (Tartarus)) and, on reading these for the first time in 2012, it’s clear he’s not wrong. He means it as a compliment and – now – so can I.
Yes, the tales are larded here and there with Latin words, phrases and archaic, phonetic spellings, but to each prospective newcomer I’d advise a default position; take the time to luxuriate in the prose rather than see it as an obstacle to following the plots. It is worth it, and you may be repaid by the elaborate beauty of every scene.
This approach of Shiel’s shares something with his contemporary, Vernon Lee; only her mythic Italianate settings are 17th and 18th century, while his resonate from further back - classic Greco-Rome, allying him to the French Romantics of the generation before. Shiel’s pallet is also broader. Here, he adds a Viking epic (‘The Spectre-Ship’) French Gothic Horror (‘The Bell of St Sepulcre’) and the fable of a Sadean slave owner in the American Deep South. (‘A Shot at the Sun’).
Of the rest, a welcome late-Victorian decadence pervades. Drug-addicted protagonists narrate their gradual intoxication, either by their own hand or led by those already fallen. (Interestingly, as often by a man – in, for example, ‘Vaila’ - as by a woman – in, say, ‘Huguenin’s Wife’).
Another European influence; women get a fairer deal, elsewhere, from Shiel than by many of his English contemporaries; revenge against one so wronged by a man features in the ironically titled ‘The Great King,’ as for a girl in love in ‘The Spectre-Ship’ and for another in ‘A Shot at the Sun.’ While hardly a sign of latent feminism, it is a step up from the callous misogyny of most.
Shiel’s own fascinating background offers a clue. Facts appear only unconfirmed but, if true, are telling. That he was born of mixed parentage on the West Indies island of Montserrat to a mother, perhaps the daughter of freed slaves, and a father, perhaps the illegitimate offspring of an Irish Customs Officer and a slave woman. Educated at Harrison College, Barbados, Shiel moved to England aged twenty to teach and translate before turning his hand to what all jobbing thinkers must inevitably slum in – commercial writing.
His subsequent bibliography is a revelation and one virtually forgotten today: twenty-four novels (+ one posthumous) and five short story collections, of which this is the standard retrospective. Only one of the twenty-four - ‘The Purple Cloud’ - is about to see reprint as a Penguin Classic.
Of this new reissue, some may bemoan the inevitable lack of an introduction or any informative footnotes, while the serif-style font – possibly Palatino Linotype – may ensure contempt of others. Then again, the text pleasingly lacks the usual crop of P.O.D. typo errors while the layout is perfectly sound. Only the dumb, alliterative title masks the esoteric wonders within.