First published back in 1826, Mary Shelley’s novel ‘The Last Man’ came some eight years after the now highly revered literary classic ‘Frankenstein’ (1818), and set down the first few apprehensive steps for a whole new subgenre – apocalyptic / post-apocalyptic fiction.  The novel received a multitude of unfavourable criticism upon its publication, and only fell back into the public eye in the early 1960’s.  Now it is hailed highly as the very beginning to this incredible and time-tested popular subgenre.

DLS Synopsis:
Discovered in the depths of the Sibyl’s caves in Naples, the following story is a prophecy of the fall of mankind at the end of the 21st century.

After dismissing the nobility he was born into, Lionel Verney is embraced back into society by the wealthy and powerful Earl of Windsor – Adrian.  But the relationships between his beloved friends and relations has fallen into turmoil.  Lord Raymond has won the hearts of Lionel’s sister Perdita, as well as that of the Greek princess Evadne.  But Adrian has fallen in love with Evade too, and upon learning of her heart’s desire, loses his grip on life.  The web of woe grows with Raymond’s planned marriage to Idris who Lionel himself has a growing love for.  But Raymond’s heart is truly with Perdita – and so he takes her hand in marriage instead. 

With the support of Lionel, Adrian is nursed back to health and life seems to flow with some degree of stability once again.  That is until questions of infidelity start to emerge as a result of a friendship between Raymond and the now poverty stricken Evadne.  However, the lack of trust in the relationship with his wife pushes Raymond to rejoin the war in Greece.  But the move to Greece will eventually bring his friends and family closer to danger.  A colossal danger that is lurking behind the (now suddenly less significant) threat of warfare.

In the great city of Constantinople, news of a lethal plague within its great stone walls is spreading.  Raymond stands alone in his ambition to enter the great city, for the growing fear of the plague.  A fear that should have been listened to more thoroughly.  For although the plague is not seen to be contagious, it nevertheless sweeps the landscape with pestilence and unrelenting death.  Humanity is falling, one by one. 

There is no retreat from the plague.  All that is left is the strength and compassion of those that have survived its unforgiving wrath thus far.  But no one will ultimately be safe.  And when the last fall, the world will be a quiet and lonely place for the very last man...

DLS Review:
First off, the importance of this novel should not be overlooked or indeed forgotten.  The novel paved the way for a whole apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic subgenre which will no doubt always have a prime place within science fiction and horror.  Yes it’s been monumentally overshadowed by the likes of Shelley’s earlier novel 'Frankenstein' (1818); but its place in literary fiction will always be secure.

‘The Last Man’ is certainly not an easy read.  Its writing style is very dated and in places quite hard to follow.  That said - it does still project the classical beauty of such historic fiction, which encapsulates a certain literary mood and atmosphere that is more poetic than geared towards the actual telling of the story.

The biggest downside of the novel is its overwhelmingly verbose nature.  The first half of the novel is given over to establishing the characters, playing off their elaborate and intricate love lives against one another, and setting this overly-complex character backdrop in front of a spectacularly apocalyptic premise.

Indeed, the whole plague and eventual post-apocalyptic plot takes a very backseat to the main thrust of the novel – that of the chaotic relationships that form and diminish throughout the tale.  But when the plague kicks in, its presence is forever there, casting its shadow over the entire second half of the tale.

The first person perspective of Lionel Verney works incredibly well throughout the somewhat drawn-out length of the novel.  Verney’s perception of the harrowing demise of humanity, mixed with his loss for his loved ones and his sense of moral duty throws up a veritable barrage of emotions for the author’s exploration.  Here Shelley truly excels, dissecting and elaborating on the emotional response of our narrator at every opportunity, mapping out the monumentally crushing weight of the premise upon one surviving man.  The response is as epic as the plot itself.

Further still, Shelley’s mesmerising descriptions of the blanket of death that smothers the entirety of the second half of the book is exquisite in its morbidity.  The unrelenting suffering on show is portrayed with such an in-depth cruelty that the reader can’t help but feel beaten down and crippled by the sheer downbeat nature of the text.

The climax and finality of the story is suitably subdued and gloomy.  Like with M.P. Shiel’s ‘The Purple Cloud’ (1901), sanity and one’s purpose in life are brought to the forefront of the tale, to be left open and raw for the reader to take from it what they will.

For all its impact and depressing power, ‘The Last Man’ is still a very longwinded and often tiresome read.  Its storyline, although predictive of a time in the future, is still wildly off the mark and monumentally unadventurous with its foresight.  Boredom does sadly creep in from time to time during the storyline’s overly static direction.  Indeed, the first half of the novel is almost too dull and uneventful to warrant much more of the reader’s attention.  But the rewards are there for the persistent.

It’s certainly not a novel for everyone.  Nor indeed is it one that will be enjoyed by all that do read it through.  It’s hard-going and verbose almost to the nth degree.  But it’s where post-apocalyptic fiction all began.  And its strength is certainly in its groundbreaking importance.

The novel runs for a total of 432 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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