Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Shiel, M P

(1865-1947) UK writer of Irish-mulatto parentage, born (as Shiell) in Montserrat in the British West Indies. His Supernatural Fiction has a dedicated cult following, though he is better remembered for his Science Fiction and his unconventional detective and mystery fiction. His background, including his title as King of Redonda, an island in the Caribbean which his father claimed as his own, and his prolific output have made him of interest among collectors and bibliophiles. The Works of M.P. Shiel: A Study in Bibliography (1948; exp 1980 2 vols) by A Reynolds Morse (1914-2000) and other books cited below give a guide through the maze of MPS's work. MPS was a highly competent linguist, and this gave him a remarkable if affected command of the English language. His florid but atmospheric style ideally suited the Decadence of the 1890s.

MPS started writing at age 12, but it was his discovery of the work of Edgar Allan Poe in 1882 that really fired his imagination. His first sale was "The Doctor's Bee" (1889 Rare Bits). He translated stories for The Strand Magazine from 1891, but did not turn to writing full-time until the success of his first published book, Prince Zaleski (coll of linked stories 1895), about a reclusive detective who solves crimes by logic and deduction from the depths of his archaic and exaggeratedly Gothic castle. MPS sustained this style through his short stories of this period, which include his best Weird Fiction, collected as Shapes in the Fire (coll 1896) and The Pale Ape and Other Pulses (coll 1911). Heavily influenced by Poe, overlain with images of decadent extravagance, these stories are unique in style and delivery and are among the most distinctive supernatural stories of the Victorian period. The best is "Vaila" (cut vt "The House of Sounds" in The Pale Ape), styled on "The Fall of the House of Usher", about an accursed house where a clock measures out its final days. Also from this period is "Huguenin's Wife" (1895 Pall Mall; rev in The Pale Ape), an effective story of Reincarnation and transmigration. It shares with "Xélucha" (1896), "The Bride" (1902 English Illustrated Magazine) and others MPS's fascination for the Femme Fatale returned from the grave. Although MPS continued to produce short stories for the next 40 years, little of his later work has been collected, although John Gawsworth included much in his Anthologies. Some stories were reworked into episodic novels like Here Comes the Lady (coll of linked stories 1928) and The Invisible Voices (fixup 1935), mostly extensively revised and often for the poorer. Some of MPS's later stories were collaborations with (and sometimes uncredited revisions by) Gawsworth, Oswell Blakeston (1907-1985) and Edgar Jepson. His most representative work is in The Best Short Stories of M.P. Shiel (coll 1948) ed Gawsworth and Xélucha and Others (coll 1975), the latter originally assembled by MPS for Arkham House in 1947.

As MPS's early writings were financially unsuccessful he turned to hackwork, including ghosting for others, especially Louis Tracy (1863-1928), with whom MPS sometimes collaborated on detective stories as Gordon Holmes. The extent of their work together has never been satisfactorily resolved, even though their styles were poles apart. Certainly MPS contributed extensively to "Tracy's" future-war novel An American Emperor (1896-1897 Pearson's Weekly; 1897), and this encouraged MPS's interest in such fiction. MPS's style remained ebullient but became more controlled for novels. These cover the whole range of commercial fiction, but the most significant is The Purple Cloud (1901 Royal; 1901; rev 1929). Ostensibly sf – the first man to reach the North Pole returns to find all life on Earth has been destroyed by a poisonous gas released from volcanoes – the novel has the underlying theme of the Balance between Good and Evil, represented by the off-stage presence of supernatural agencies called Black and White. MPS's Villain-turned-Hero explores the abandoned Earth like an Accursed Wanderer until at last he discovers another human. The movie The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) was based loosely on the book. MPS's interest in eternal wanderers and survivors from the grave reappears in This Above All (1933; vt Above All Else 1943), about the 20th-century lives and frustrations of those whom Christ raised from the dead and who have been rendered immortal (> Immortality); Christ himself survives as Raphael, living in a monastery in Tibet (>>> Religion; Theosophy). These works link with MPS's interest in the theme of the Overman, which had emerged in his future-war novels The Yellow Danger (1898 Short Stories as "The Empress of the Earth"; 1898) and The Dragon (1913 Red Magazine as "To Arms!"; 1913; rev vt The Yellow Peril 1929), his political thriller The Lord of the Sea (1901; cut 1924 US), his short mystery stories featuring Cummings King Monk, his nonfantastic war novel The Yellow Wave (1905) and the mystical How the Old Woman Got Home (1927).

MPS was a mixed character. Essentially antireligious – his novel The Last Miracle (1906) seeks to discredit the Christian faith through the production of hoax Miracles – he still held strongly religious views, and believed scientific achievement would bring one closer to God. Although he could sometimes translate those views into his fiction, his emotions and linguistic pyrotechnics tended to dominate and obfuscate his message, leaving readers to draw what they wished from his fiction. The results are sometimes confused but seldom bland. [MA]

other works: Mostly mysteries, but some of associational interest: The Rajah's Sapphire (1896) with W T Stead (1849-1912); The Weird O' It (1902 Cassell's Saturday Journal as "In Love's Whirlpool"; 1902); Unto the Third Generation (1903); The Isle of Lies (1908); Dr Krasinski's Secret (1929), The Black Box (1930) and The Young Men Are Coming! (1937). The Zaleski and Monk stories were combined as Prince Zaleski, and Cummings King Monk (coll 1977), with further discoveries in The New King (coll 1980). Earlier unrevised and lesser-known material was assembled as The Empress of the Earth, 1898; The Purple Cloud, 1901; Some Short Stories; Off-prints of the original editions (omni 1979).

further reading: The Quest for M.P. Shiel's Realm of Redonda (1979) by A Reynolds Morse; Shiel in Diverse Hands: A Collection of Essays (anth 1983) ed Morse contains extensive studies and evaluations of MPS's work.

Matthew Phipps Shiel

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This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.