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.