Book Review: The Purple Cloud

The Purple Cloud

by M.P. Shiel


I hated this book.

I did not hate everything about it, which is why I finished reading it; but while I liked the concept and the writing, I have rarely loathed a protagonist more than I hated this freaking guy. Since I recently read a trio of adventure novels by H. Rider Haggard, in which I also grew to hate the Great White Hunters who slaughter elephants for fun and mock the savage Africans, this was familiar but annoying territory. (Since I just, the same day I am writing this review, finished reading Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, in which I once more hated all of the main characters, I think I need to focus on books about likeable people for a while.)

Adam Jeffson is his name. Dr. Jeffson – for he is a medical doctor – begins the book married to a social climbing gold-digging beauty, who wishes her husband to become fabulously wealthy so that she may look down her nose at all of humanity. She pushes him to join an expedition to reach the North Pole, which no person has yet reached at the time of the story. It is unclear when the book is set; somewhere in the late 19th century, it seems, but the setting is unclear because Shiel insisted on using the now-familiar frame for science fiction stories around this time (Originally published in 1901 — H.G. Wells lauded it as brilliant!) namely that the manuscript was left mysteriously to Our Correspondent (also known as the author); this particular manuscript was created under the influence of that Mystery Science known as Mesmerism! Yes! A woman, under the influence of hypnosis, wrote out various strange manuscripts, one of which was this story. Is it true? A communication from another world? Who can say?!? The upshot of all of this humbuggery is that the book is an alternate universe story of the end of the world, which we living people can know about because of the mysterious transmission of the story, which can therefore also be a first person narrative told by someone who isn’t actually the author. But since it takes place in a world that is not quite ours, it is not clear what the timeline is, though the geopolitical world is the same as our own. Anyway.

Dr. Jeffson wishes to join the expedition to the Pole, at his wife’s behest, because there is a cash prize, an incredibly large cash prize, to be awarded to the person who first sets actual foot upon the top of the world. Unfortunately, the expedition already has a doctor signed up to go. Fortunately for Jeffson, and unfortunately for the other doctor, Jeffson’s wife – who has the absurd but suitably hideous name of Clodagh – isn’t above murder, and in fact, she poisons the other doctor (Whose name is Peter Peters. Yup.) so that Jeffson can take his place. Apparently so we can really enjoy our hatred for this couple, she does it slowly, pretending to nurse the sick man while actually dosing him with atropine. So Dr. Peters dies, Jeffson goes on the journey; but along the way, he is both frustrated and unpopular, because the ship is going to be stopped by the polar ice cap, and Jeffson is not intended to go on the final leg of the journey over the ice by dogsled; at the same time, he and his wife are suspected of putting an end to poor Pete Peters. Somehow, Jeffson is all freaking outraged by the accusations that finally get voiced, even though everyone involved knows they are true; he ultimately goes out to have a duel with one of the other members of the expedition, and even though the other guy is a better man and a better shot – and he’s right about Jeffson and Clodagh – Jeffson wins and kills the other guy, and takes his place on the final leg. So now I’m pissed that this ass is going to win the money and make his wife happy.

But wait, there’s more. The dogsled portion arrives, and the three men going don’t plan to bring enough food for the dogs. Why? Because THEY PLAN TO FEED THE DOGS TO EACH OTHER ON THE WAY. That’s right: not only does the dog die, but FORTY dogs are going to die, and be forced into cannibalism, all so these three pricks don’t have to bring more food. (Should I mention here that they originally meant to use reindeer to pull the sleds, but they didn’t bring enough fodder for the reindeer and all of them starved to death while still on the ship? Nah, I’ll leave that out.) This is all three of them, so we can’t blame Jeffson for that, but we can certainly blame Jeffson for this: he leaves the other two men to die of exposure, leaving camp early with extra supplies and dogs so that he can be the first to the Pole and claim the prize.

He makes it there first, indeed, but then a strange thing happens. How strange, we don’t yet know, but it is the titular Purple Cloud, so we know it’s got to be a big deal. Anyway, Jeffson heads back across the ice once more, and, because we don’t hate him enough, he makes it all the way back to the edge of the ice with only one surviving dog, his favorite: which he then FUCKING KILLS JUST BECAUSE HE DOESN’T WANT TO DEAL WITH GETTING THE DOG ON HIS KAYAK.

Stephen King once wrote that the fastest way to get an audience to hate a character was to have him hurt a dog. And this guy now, in my mind, has the blame for the deaths of forty dogs, a herd of starving reindeer, and several humans, as well. That’s why I hated him, and the lack of sufficient suffering in retribution is why I hated this book. Because no matter what else happens, Jeffson doesn’t die.

But here’s the thing: none of this is the actual story. The story began with the purple cloud: which was poisonous, and has killed all of humanity and pretty much all large animals. The bulk of the book is Jeffson realizing he is the last man alive on Earth. That’s right: none of this evil involved in the Polar expedition was actually the point; it was just intended to get Jeffson to be the only one alive at the north pole when the cloud hit – which, it turns out, is what saved his worthless dog-killing ass.

I won’t spoil the rest of the book, which is better than this beginning portion, though I will say that Jeffson continues to be a shithead: for the next twenty years (The book covers quite a number of years), whenever Jeffson gets bored or angsty, he goes to one of the great cities of the world, and burns it. To the ground. The whole city. (When he burns Paris, he takes 20 paintings out of the Louvre, and burns the rest.) Just for the hell of it. Just to make us hate him a little more.

The intended theme at the end of the novel is about good and evil, and how good will eventually win out in the end; in that struggle, Jeffson is the evil. And boy, is he evil. I’m not really sure why Shiel wrote it all this way, when there surely had to be an easier way to make his point. But considering his writing style, he is not a fan of making a quick and simple point. Here’s a sample sentence – one sentence.

Now I would not trudge back to the ship, but struck a match, and went lighting up girandoles, cressets, candelabra, into a confusion of lights among a multitude of pale-tinted pillars, rose and azure, with verd-antique, olive, and Portoro marble, and serpentine; the mansion large; I having to traverse a desert of brocade-hangings, slim pillars, Broussa silks, before I spied a doorway behind a Smyrna portiere at a staircase-foot, went up, and roamed some time about the house – windows with gilt grills, little furniture, but palatial spaces, hermit pieces of faience, huge, antique, and arms, my footfalls muted in the Persian carpeting; till I passed along a gallery having only one window-grating that overlooked an inner court, and by this gallery entered the harem, which declared itself by a headier luxury, bric-a-bracerie, and baroqueness of manner; from which, descending a little stair behind a portiere, I came into a species of larder paved with marble, in which grinned a negress in indigo garb, her hair still adhering, and here an infinite supply of sweetmeats, French preserved-foods, sherbets, wines, and so on: so I put a number of things into a pannier, passed up again, found in the cavity of a garnet some of those pale cigarettes which drunken, then a jewelled chibouque two yards long, and tembaki; with all I descended by another stair, deposited them on the steps of a kiosk of olive-marble in a corner of the court, passed up again, and brought down a yatag to recline on: and there by the kiosk-steps I ate and passed the night, smoking for hours in a state of lassitude, eying where, at the court’s center, the alabaster of a square well blinks out white through a rankness of wild vine, weeds, acacias in flower, jasmines, roses, which overgrow both it and the kiosk and the whole court, raging too far over the four-square arcade of Moorish arches round the court, under one of which I had hung a lantern of crimson silk; and near two in the morning I dropped to sleep, a deeper peace of gloom now brooding where so long the hobgoblin Mogul of the moon had governed.

All in all, I’d recommend reading The Stand. Randall Flagg is a lot more fun to hate. And he didn’t kill forty dogs.

Triple Review: The Great White Hunters


Three Novels by H. Rider Haggard:


Allan Quatermain

King Solomon’s Mines


These books made me feel bad.

First, I had some serious white guilt issues. I don’t go in for that normally; I have read Mark Twain’s Huck Finn several times, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as well, not to mention the uncomfortable To Kill a Mockingbird. I read them, all three of those and others, out loud to my students. I admit I skip over the N-word: because I am of the opinion that, while an ideal world would lack any racial terms, or would at least have removed from the terms all power to hurt, we don’t live in that ideal world, and that word coming out of my white face as I stand at the front of the classroom with power over my students – that is not a powerless word, that is not a word that I can be sure won’t hurt anyone. But otherwise, I don’t mind reading either the silly caricatures of minorities, or the swaggering white titans (Whitans? Or all three words, and make it Swhitans?) who bestride the world like a colossus. While I want to include people of color in the authors my students read and that I read, I am not against reading a dozen great novels by dead white men. I am comfortable with being a honky.

But this book (It was all three novels in a single collection) made me uncomfortable. It was more to do with the unquestioned superiority of the white men than the savagery of the Africans; sure, the Africans were savages, described as ignorant, violent, often childish, having outlandish costumes and going in for cannibalism (With the completely absurd description in She of the tribe’s use of a heated metal pot, clapped over the head of the intended victim who is thus both tortured and killed, and then turned into stew. And they called it the Hotpot. And the goofy white character, the servant guy who played the role of Stan Laurel or Lou Costello or Kramer or Chris Farley – the guy who panics all the time – was constantly terrified of the Hotpot. “Don’t leave me alone with the savages! They will give me the Hotpot!” How do you say that with terror in your voice? I just couldn’t take it seriously.), but the bigger problem was the way the white men took over the ancient African societies they came across, simply assuming they had greater ability to lead. And not even for the usual reason of needing to bring Jesus to the heathens; no, this was usually because they had greater knowledge of guns and of how to win a battle. Which I think is, first, no good reason to assume power, and second, nonsense, at least in terms of battle: modern warfare uses modern weapons, and when you take away said modern weapons, the idea that a group of honkies who have never been in the area could lead their men to victory simply by virtue of their whiteness is absurd. Yet that is exactly what happens in both Allan Quatermain books (and it annoys me every time I see that name, because there should be another “r”), particularly King Solomon’s Mines, where the battle includes tens of thousands of African soldiers. Led by the white men to victory, just because they were white men – because the battle plan is “Get the high ground and send our best troops against their weakest.” Boy, thank god the crackers were there to explain that! No way that African civilizations that have existed for millennia could have figured that out without help. And guess who the mightiest single warrior is: well, there is much made of a particularly hardcore Zulu chieftain who travels with them; but right by his side is the biggest, strongest white man, who is better in hand-to-hand combat than people who have spent their lives doing just that – but, after all, he is British.

And then there was the penis factor. Not only did the whites win because they were whites – and in both She and Allan Quatermain, the rulers of the hidden African kingdoms were white people, mysteriously existing in the heart of Africa – but the men were worshiped as masters of all things because they were men. In King Solomon’s Mines, the rival rulers were men, so this was less of an issue; but in Allan Quatermain, there is a pair of sisters who are co-rulers of an ancient kingdom of great wealth and sophistication; and the minute that the Englishmen get there, the two queens both fall in love with the hunkiest of the three Great White Hunters; he chooses the whiter queen – the blonde one, of course; the one with the darker hair is both sluttier and witchier than the gooder, purer, whiter sister – and she not only marries him, she immediately swears to obey him in all things, stating categorically that he is her lord and he makes her feel safe and taken care of by his mighty manly parts. The queen, this is. Lifelong ruler of a hereditary monarchy, a completely self-sufficient kingdom that has been cut off entirely from the modern world. And she’s freaking swooning and mincing and clinging. Pathetic. Meanwhile, her badass witchy sister – also clearly the sexy one, though Haggard assiduously avoids even the hint of sex in all three books – denied the personal domination of the hunky honky, settles for the other white dude (Quatermain himself is somewhere around 70 in this book, and though there’s no particular reason Haggard couldn’t give him the virility claimed by all old white dudes who pretend they can have a real relationship with a hot wife half their age [TOTALLY NOT DIRECTED AT THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES], I thought it a sign of marginally good taste that Quatermain is never considered a love interest.) who is fat and too old for her and entirely unattractive, not to mention annoying; but hey, he’s a white Englishman, so clearly a catch, right? Even for a queen? Sure, I guess so. She dies (Sorry for the spoiler – but you knew she couldn’t win; she’s the bad sister. The not-blonde one.) impaled on a ceremonial spear, which is totally not phallic. Totally not.

I have to say, I did like She. The goddess in that book is a genuinely strong female character. There is too much focus on her love life, as she chose immortality so that she could survive to see her true love reborn, which happens after a mere 10,000 years or so; but the goddess-queen character (Named She by her subjects, essentially like She Who Must Not Be Named, out of a perfect sense of awe) is the most interesting person in the story and, I thought, the most sympathetic, as the dude who is her love reborn has some ridiculous fling where he “falls in love” with a woman who nurses him when he is sick, even though he can’t communicate with her: she is humble and subservient and loyal to him, whom she loves because, errrrrrrm, because he’s a very handsome man, I guess, and so she becomes his ideal woman and he loves her. Sure, whatever. I thought he should have gone with She, who wielded power and wrath and majesty, along with being so achingly beautiful that the misogynistic protagonist falls in love with her after a single sight of her without her usual veils on, which led to a nice conflict between the white characters. I also liked the ending, and the strong implication that human power is nothing in the face of the mysteries of the universe. And there is this unbelievably warped element: the society exists inside a mountain that was hollowed out by an Atlantean-style vanished race of supermen; they still exist inside the mountain, because they had complicated and extensive burial preparations for their dead, which included a perfect form of embalming that leaves their bodies in perfect condition apparently forever: but it also makes them highly flammable. And She, the immortal goddess-queen who inherited and still rules their kingdom – uses them as torches. Their body parts. Regularly. It was gloriously twisted.

Overall, I see the draw of Haggard’s books; he wrote outstanding adventure and action scenes, from battle scenes to suspenseful travels through mysterious caves and rivers and jungles. The characters do at least inspire a response, even when it’s irritation or outright hatred. He had some really cool ideas, and amazing descriptions; I liked reading his words, which were interesting and often lovely. But seriously: tone down the Great White Hunters, like, ten notches, okay? Sheeesh.