The Purple Cloud - M.P. Shiel Immediately upon finishing The Purple Cloud I had to reread H.P. Lovecraft's novella "At the Mountains of Madness." Both stories deal with forbidden polar expeditions and world-shattering revelations. Where Lovecraft's story revealed a past and a cosmos where humans hardly signified, Shiel's is a retelling of the Biblical Flood myth and an OT God's disgust with His Creation (at least the human part of it). It's that latter theme - a psychopathic deity that must be worshipped and loved, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him" - that soured me on the book. That and the thoroughly unlikable protagonist, Adam Jeffson.

The plot (in brief): Adam Jeffson is acquainted with several members of a proposed expedition to be the first to the North Pole, the first man to reach it getting $175 million. Jeffson's fiance, Clodagh, is ambitious and murderous and contrives to poison one of the expedition members - her cousin - so that Jeffson can join the party. (Be warned, there are strong misogynist and racist undertones throughout the book.)

In due course Jeffson is accepted, and the Boreal sets off for the Pole. The expedition is the latest in a long series of failures by otherwise well led and well supplied efforts. Something or someone seems to be actively blocking humanity's efforts to explore the Arctic, and Jeffson has a premonition that reaching the Pole will have consequences akin to the original Adam's eating of the forbidden fruit.

The premonition proves accurate: Jeffson reaches the Pole, the only survivor, only to return to discover that a poisonous cloud has killed everyone and (nearly) everything on Earth. Even before this second Flood, Jeffson had been a weak-willed schizophrenic. The calamity does nothing to help his mental state. The bulk of the book is taken up with Jeffson's 20 years of wandering across the world's empty landscapes and his descent into madness. There are times when Shiel is long-winded and tedious but this section is surprisingly effective more often than not. Jeffson's madness is believable in the context of realizing he's the only human being left on the planet. And it's bleakly humorous. Jeffson's great labor is arson. He torches the cities he passes through in an orgy of destruction that he watches from a suitably scenic height. His other labor is the building of a "palace" on the Greek isle of Imbros, which consumes 17 years.

Eventually, Jeffson gets around to burning Istanbul and inadvertently frees the only other human survivor - Leda. She's the daughter of the Ottoman Sultan who has lived her entire life trapped in a lightless cellar, surviving on dates and wine, until Jeffson's arson breaks open the vault. The only other beings she remembers is her mother, who dies when she was an infant, and a voice that spoke to her over the years. Jeffson's first impulse is to murder the innocent girl. He even gets so far as to approach her with upraised knife but a bolt of lightning jolts it out of his hand. Though his murderous impulse is balked, he still resolves to avoid any contact with this intruder on his peace - certainly no intimate contact that might reconstitute humanity.

This is, of course, contrary to God's plan to by the end of the novel Jeffson has come to accept his role as the new Adam.

I can't say I've become a fan of Shiel's but this is an interesting novel reminiscent (as I've written) of Lovecraft and a clear precursor to Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. Recommended but not enthusiastically.