- SHIEL, M(atthew) P(hipps)
- (1865-1947)UK writer, born Shiell in Montserrat in the British West Indies; in the UK from his late teens. He began writing fiction in the late 1880s and continued intermittently until his death, although his significant fantastic fiction was published 1896-1901. MPS was intensely concerned with style per se, incorporating poetic techniques into narrative prose; he also used sensational adventure fiction as a vehicle for idiosyncratic ideas about ECONOMICS, science and RELIGION. As a result, his work is not to every reader's taste, although it has been praised highly by such critics and fellow writers as Rebecca West (1892-1983), Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) and Dorothy L. Sayers(1893-1957).Since MPS matured in England during the fin de siecle, it is not surprising that his early work shows highly romantic subject matter and an obsessive concern with decorated prose, his models being mostly Edgar Allan POE and mid-19th-century French writers. Early work includesextremely baroque detective short stories, in Prince Zaleski (coll 1895), and horror fiction collected in Shapes in the Fire (coll 1896) and The Pale Ape (coll 1911). Although these stories, written in a lapidary style,were on the edge of being old-fashioned when they appeared, they are among the very best examples of their sort.After his noncommercial early work, MPS shifted to serials for the popular press. Future- WAR novels includeThe Yellow Danger (1889 Short Stories as "The Empress of the Earth"; 1898) and The Dragon (1913 The Red Magazine as "To Arms!"; 1913). Both novels, which contain sf elements (especially The Dragon), are adventure stories in which the Yellow Peril - i.e., Chinese hordes - overwhelms the world by sheer quantity of manpower. Both, however, depart from the stereotyped Yellow Peril story in seeing the quarrel between Orient and Occident asultimately a spiritual matter, rather than economic, as Chinese and UK SUPERMEN strive for domination. Both novels are developed along similarlines, basic ideas being: the horrors of war (depicted on such a colossal scale and with such sangfroid that some have seen MPS's attitude as callous approval); a strange mixing of Nietzschean and Tolstoyan theories of history, in which supermen make history but are generated by their culture; a Spencerian survival of the fittest on a racial level; and thinly veiled suggestions of paranoia. Both books, aimed at a popular market, are sparsely written with no attempt at stylistic decoration. A third war novel, The Yellow Wave (1905), is a non-fantastic work based on the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5).MPS's finest work is generally conceded to have been The Purple Cloud (1901), the story of the last man left on Earth after hydrocyanic acid gas liberated by volcanism has killed off mammalian life. The doings of the protagonist, driven mad by solitude, are brilliantly and vividly imagined. Behind the story, however, lies a mythic cosmic struggle between opposing forces that use humans as tools. The Lord of the Sea (1901; savagely cut 1924 US), almost as fine, is strongly based on Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844-5; trans anon as The Count of Monte-Cristo 1846 UK) by Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870). It develops anetwork of mid-19th-century sensational motifs - incredible coincidences, swapped babies, hidden identities, chance-found incredible wealth, documents in a trunk, festering revenges, elaborate prison escapes, frustrated romance, Napoleonic megalomania - yet, though written to an aesthetic outdated for its time, it embodies that aesthetic with enormous elan and vitality. The essence of the book is a concept adapted from the work of the popular US economist Henry George (1839-1897): if certain individuals can hog the land, others can hog the sea. Building on this insight, one Hogarth, using the wealth plucked from a diamond-laden meteorite, builds sea forts and claims ownership of the oceans. The Lord of the Sea has been criticized as antisemitic, since it depicts a UK overrun by Jewish refugees from Continental pogroms, including unpleasant caricatures reminiscent of the stage Jew of earlier drama; other critics, however, have rejected the accusation.MPS's other fantastic fiction includes: The Last Miracle (1906), about a plot to discredit Christianity with fake miraculous visions created by gigantic hologram-like devices; "The Place of Pain Day" (1914 The Red Magazine), about a natural waterlens that shows horrors on the Moon, and "The Future Day" (1928 London Daily Herald), about life and love in an aeronautic culture, which bothappeared in The Invisible Voices (coll 1935); and This Above All (1933; vt Above All Else 1943), about a trio of immortals made so by Jesus, who isalive in Tibet. MPS also occasionally ghost-wrote for Louis TRACY; the sf novel An American Emperor (1897), as by Tracy, is in large part by MPS. His last sf work, The Young Men are Coming (1937), deals partly withcontemporary social upheaval and partly with an interstellar visit. The multiple-sex ALIENS are far superior to humanity and possess an incredible superscience. The sf element is much more sophisticated and imaginative than contemporary GENRE SF, but is buried in a welter of eccentric social philosophy, and told in the decorated style of its author's youth. The result is at times almost unreadable.With MPS is associated the "Kingdom of Redonda". His sea-trader father (MPS claimed) laid claim to the small uninhabited ISLAND of Redonda, near Antigua, and in a ceremony there crowned young Matthew king. On MPS's death the "crown" passed to John GAWSWORTH, who awarded titles of nobility to persons associated withShiel, including Sayers, West, Edward SHANKS and Dylan Thomas (1914-1953). On Gawsworth's death the title became clouded.MPS has received some attention outside fantastic fiction as a writer of partial Black ancestry, and as perhaps the first UK novelist of Caribbean origin.EFBOther works: The Best Short Stories of M.P. Shiel (coll 1948) ed John Gawsworth; Xelucha and Others (coll 1975 US); Prince Zaleski and Cummings King Monk(coll 1977 US); Xelucha and the Primate of the Rose (coll 1994 chap).About the author: The Works of M.P. Shiel: A Study in Bibliography (1948), rev and much exp as The Works of M.P. Shiel - Updated (in 2 vols 1980) by A. Reynolds Morse, along with Shiel in Diverse Hands (anth 1984), also edMorse; "The World, the Devil, and M.P. Shiel" by Sam Moskowitz in Explorers of the Infinite (coll 1963); "The Politics of Evolution: Philosophical Themes in the Speculative Fiction of M.P. Shiel" in Foundation \#27 (1983) by Brian M. STABLEFORD.
Science Fiction and Fantasy Encyclopedia. Academic. 2011.