The Purple Cloud – MP Shiel (1901)
‘The Purple Cloud is widely hailed as a masterpiece of science fiction and one of the best ‘last man’ novels ever written. A deadly purple vapour (sic) passes over the world and annihilates all living creatures except one man, Adam Jeffson. He embarks on an epic journey across a silent and devastated planet, an apocalyptic Robinson Crusoe putting together the semblance of a normal life from the flotsam and jetsam of his former existence. As he descends into madness over the years, he becomes increasingly aware that his survival was no accident and that his destiny – and the fate of the human race – are part of a profound, cosmological plan.’
Blurb from the 2000 Bison Books Edition
The narrator, or diarist, brings his story to us via a strange route. As was common for the time, The Purple Cloud is prefaced by an introductory chapter which explains how the manuscript came into the author’s hands. In this case it is transmitted by a young woman who, under hypnosis, is able to travel in time and space. Thus, in such a state, she reads aloud a diary written by a man of the near-future.
The narrator, Adam Jeffson, is an interesting figure, erudite yet somewhat naïve. he is beset we discover from childhood with voices in his head, opposing voices of what we would term to be Good and Evil, alternately urging or restraining him with regard to particular actions.
At this time an expedition is setting off for the North Pole, the incentive for which is a $175 million reward to the first man who sets foot at the Pole. Adam’s lover, the Countess Clodagh – a rather cold and despicable femme-fatale – poisons her own cousin in order that Adam can take his place on the expedition.
It is a tragic journey in which others of the expedition die and Adam, urged on by the warring voices, finally sets off alone to the Pole.
In his introduction to this edition, John Clute points out the unintentionally comic device of siting an actual physical pole at the North Pole, or at least a short cylindrical column – set in the middle of an inexplicable lake – on which is inscribed an unreadable name.
Before the expedition set off, a Scottish preacher was prophesying that only evil would come of such an endeavour; that, in essence, there are some things that God does not want us to do, know or see..
As the narrator’s name is Adam, the allusion is obvious. the obelisk at the Pole is no more than a manifestation of the Tree of Knowledge and Adam has transgressed by looking upon it. This is only the start of the story however, for when Adam returns he finds his co-explorers dead and sees in the sky a purple cloud. There is a scent of peaches in the air and on his journey back he slowly comes to realise that Death – in the form of a purple cloud of cyanide gas – has swept the Earth and left only him alive.
Much of the novel is taken up with this journey of solitude. Clute also points out in the introduction that we often forget how pessimistic and bleak many of these late Victorian/Edwardian works were. Wells, for instance, held out little hope for mankind’s improvement and enlightenment.
Part of the effect of the gas is as a preservative, causing the human race to decay only slowly. This is a clever and chilling device as it allows Shiel to describe tableaux of various sections of society, trapped like flies in amber by the quick acting poison at the moment of death.
Jeffson regresses into a kind of madness and travels the globe setting fire to cities before finally setting up home on the island of Imbros where he builds himself a small palace.
Whether the middle eastern robes he dresses himself in were meant as a sign of decadence is not clear, but it is significant that as his madness develops he begins to abandon western dress in favour of turbans and Turkish caftans.
For its time it’s a very interesting portrait of a man’s descent into psychosis, particularly in view of the ‘voices’ which plague him; warring factions within his own mind, reminiscent of Stevenson’s ‘Jekyll & Hyde’. Jeffson believes these manifestations to have a more supernatural origin, although Shiel must have been aware of contemporary thinking in the field of psychiatry and indeed, the story of ‘Jekyll & Hyde’