British author Matthew Pipps Shiel (M.P. Shiel) first published his classic post-apocalyptic novel ‘The Purple Cloud’ back in 1901. This early example of 'last man on earth' fiction paved the way for a mass of similarly scoped fiction over the ensuing years. The novel received high acclaim from the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, and has remained an important example of early post-apocalyptic fiction ever since. Shiel drafted three versions of the tale between 1901 and 1929; with the latter version revising the novel's prose and the general language used.
The following is a written account taken from the words spoken by the medium, Mary Wilson, who whilst under a trance, detailed the whole unfolding story that speaks of a devastating event hanging over the future of mankind. The text was transcribed into a shorthand book entitled ‘III’. And so the story begins:
Mr Adam Jefferson finds that he has been landed with taking on an expedition to reach the North Pole. And after Jefferson’s fiancée learns of the 175 million dollar prize pledged by a dying millionaire for the first person to reach the North Pole, she secures his place on this voyage by poisoning off those that would have been in his place.
After a troublesome voyage, wrought with danger from the natural elements, alongside betrayal from his fellow explorers, Jefferson eventually finds himself as the sole person to finally reach the North Pole. There he finds a strange rock formation inscribed with puzzling text amidst a lake of circulating water. Upon arriving at this surreal sight, Jefferson loses consciousness.
After waking and beginning his trek back to the ship ‘The Boreal’, Jefferson notices a worrying purple cloud lingering over the landscape before him. A faint smell of almonds accompanies the fog. As he travels further towards his ship, Jefferson encounters numerous dead animals; but not one living creature is amongst them. Sure enough, when he arrives back, the entire crew is dead. Now alone, Jefferson sets sail for the British shores.
During his voyage back to Britain, Jefferson encounters many other abandoned boats and ships, each one holding the remains of their deceased crew. Jefferson heads for the nearest land, but upon reaching its shores, is greeted by yet more corpses. Finally, he arrives in London, where after traipsing through the silent streets of this once busy city, Jefferson learns of the pitiful fate that had wiped-out humankind. A search for any fellow survivors finds him descending great depths into mines; but alas to no avail.
Jefferson’s solitary lifetime seems to span before him, with no chance of a future for his race or any companionship for his remaining years. His sanity takes to a downward spiral, as he embarks on a humanities final lifetime of travelling and discovery…
The framework for Shiel’s haunting vision is of a peculiar design, introducing the story by way of a multi-layered framing devise, without concluding the story in a similar fashion. This open ‘bookending’, seems to add little to the story itself, other than to perhaps suggest somewhat of a ‘fictional reality’ to the whole tale – as contradictory as it sounds.
The pace of the novel gradually builds up its momentum, with the run up to Jefferson’s expedition to the North Pole being rather slow and tedious, although laced with numerous hints of black comedy. However, once Jefferson has reached his goal, and the purple cloud is first sighted, the storyline certainly takes on a new vigour, mounting up the tension as the devastating effects of the cloud are unveiled through the first hand observations of our narrator.
Jefferson’s desperate attempts at finding any other human life from here on in successfully hooks in the reader with the absolute futility of the whole dilemma at hand. Jefferson’s loneliness and subsequent plummet into mental instability, and later his all-out insanity, is portrayed with such a stark effect on the reader.
The ‘last man on earth’ dilemma is dissected and exhibited with a thorough examination by the author; from the first signs of the disaster to the complete acceptance of humanity’s extinction. The dramatically sudden imbalance in nature is pondered upon, the quietness of the world is poetically administered, and the echoes of humankind’s final days are left open to voyeurism for our narrator (and therefore ultimately the reader) to bask in all of its self-pity. Indeed, Shiel's passages on mankind's desperate attempts at survival deep in the mines, paints a haunting picture of the madness that must have erupted across the face of the earth over these final days.
The result of this tragic demise of humankind is Jefferson’s descent into an abyss of utter insanity. Shiel embraces our narrator’s madness with a litany of wildly chaotic traits; with Jefferson adopting Turkish clothing as he travels across the landscape of the world believing he is now equal to that of a god. Perhaps the most powerful moments are when his insanity turns him into an unrelenting pyromaniac of the world’s many great cities. His meandering quest across the world sees him burning down city after city, until finally a more constructive notion takes to his mind and he embraces his spiritual compulsions.
However, as the destructive nature that enveloped Jefferson subsides, so does a large proportion of the story’s entertainment. Alas, this becomes so apparent, that at around the halfway point of the novel, the tale takes a dramatic turn for the worse; taking on a far slower pace, with a monotones storyline spattered with only infrequent glimpses of interest.
Philosophical and spiritual questions become the main thrust of the final portion of the novel. With a cleverly crafted twist to the story (I won't give it away) Shiel does manage to plant some more prevailing seeds of interest for the reader, as the novel winds towards its downbeat conclusion.
The language used throughout the novel gets a little heavy at times; bogged down with an over-descriptive nature that often drastically slows down the storytelling. However, the atmosphere and emotional tapestry that is displayed throughout the tale are the story’s strongest literary pillars.
The novel runs for a total of 272 pages.
© DLS Reviews