Book Review: The Purple Cloud / Author: M P Shiel / Publisher: Penguin Classics / Release Date: July 26th
First published in 1901, The Purple Cloud has a claim to fame as an early example of “last man” apocalyptic fiction, so its reissue by Penguin, complete with an excellent introduction and notes by John Sutherland, is very welcome for that reason. Adam Jeffson is part of an expedition to the North Pole, but when he returns, the triumphant lone survivor, it is to find that a super-volcano has erupted in his absence and released a vast cloud of poisonous cyanide gas. The gas kills almost instantly, then leaves its victims mummified, so that the whole world is transformed into a gruesome waxwork museum…
The early pages, detailing the attempt on the Pole, are electric as relationships between the explorers deteriorate into murderous antipathy. But once everyone except Adam is dead, there's an inevitable slackening of tension. Our last man has no one to bicker with, and no obvious sources of jeopardy (most of the animal kingdom has been wiped out as well, so don't expect any packs of hungry wolves or anything like that).
The later sections make for a punishing read, due to Shiel's overly-ornamented prose, and his decision to have an increasingly crazed and ranting Adam as a narrator, where a tone of cool, neutral reportage might have been more effective. The book's themes might seem prescient, but the treatment relegates it to the status of bizarre Victoriana.