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The Pale Ape and Other Pulses

by MP Shiel

(Tartarus Press, 2006; 211 pages; $55.00; 1-872621-98-8.)

Review by William P Simmons

Attaining an ethereal wedding of cosmic awe and emotional unease beyond the grasp of his peers, M.P. Shiel (1865-1947) cover scanwas an author whose lyrical, emotionally-charged style proved the perfect aesthetic vehicle with which to express the grandiose and macabre. A true eccentric, his mystically charged narrative style and technique enraptures. Poetry of the truest sort, the crystalline complexity of his images -- mirrored by his sentence structure -- is heightened further by a less apparent but crucial underlying resonance of the outré. Admired by both Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft, the latter discovering the stylist's supernatural work in 1923, Shiel was the author of around 25 novels and dozens of short stories, including grotesque detective pieces, ornamental mysteries, exotic adventures, scientific romances, and supernatural horror, the last few of which make up the bulk of the fiction reprinted in The Pale Ape And Other Pulses, a collection of Shiel's hard-to-find yet easy to appreciate neglected weird fiction.

The first major collection of this author's in three decades, this collection is part of Tartarus Presses ever-expanding efforts to salvage worthy neglected masterworks of the macabre. This collection is rather like a burnt offering to some dark god -- a dark treasure of supernatural, psychological, and early surrealistic fiction, each of which are lent philosophical richness by Shiel's ornate style. These stories are worthy of their bad-boy reputations, literary vivisections of morality and expectation In a genre too often known for bland obedience to conservative moral posturing than quests for truth, these pieces subvert not only the commonplace themes, subjects, and moral/ aesthetic attitudes of Shiel's day. In addition, their method of narrative delivery was (and remains) revolutionary. An explosive refutation of the banality of minimalism -- a narrative approach long utilized by modern ghost story authors -- these Pulses are precisely that, life-lines pumping new blood through literary convention.

Originally collected in 1911, the ten stories comprising The Pale Ape and Other Pulses date from the mid 1890s into the first decade of the twentieth century, providing a fascinating cross-section of Shiel's evolving interests in a rapidly changing cultural climate. As noted for technique and structure as for his delirious style, Shiel was just as often noted for an implicit wit which is duly noted in "Huguenin's Wife," a conte cruel easily comparable with (if not superior) to the efforts of Charles Birkin. Destiny occupies just as prominent a place in these tales of spectral revelation and human baseness as do occult manifestations, the former celebrated to high effect in "The Spectre-Ship," a chillingly effective re-shaping of folklore sensibilities that benefits from Shiel's stylistic witchery and cynicism, treating an unavoidable doom with all the pathos and fervor of a Decadent whose bread and butter was the beautifully corrupt, meaningless void. "The House of Sounds" (a revision of "Vaila," first published in the landmark collection Shapes in the Fire), toted by none other than H. P. Lovecraft as "the most haunting thing I have read in a decade," is a delicious, undeniably poetic rape of convention, attacking our frail dependence on perception; this piece arouses not only fear but panic, evoking a sense of awe most often reached only by such authors as Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen.

Showing a devotion to Poe as well as the artists of his own age, "The Great King" is a study in moral deterioration, while the less successful "Cummings King Monk," "'A Bundle of Letters," and "The Bride" are more concerned with human mysteries of identity and deduction than the spectral or unknown that lend Sheil's other stories such effect. Despite the more mundane topics of these later stories, their treatment lends them an undeniable sense of strangeness, surrounding what in other hands would be mundane 'who-done-its?' with a cosmic sense of unease also exhibited in Shiel's Prince Zaleski stories. Sharing much with the atmospheric terror of the traditional ghost story, wherein established reality is invaded by outside forces -- albeit with a vastly different style and approach -- "The Pale Ape" is a minor supernatural masterwork, mirroring in its tragic plot and emotional authenticity a sense of helplessness reached only in LeFanu's own story of abnormal psychology, guilt, and supernatural menace, "Green Tea."

Rather than possessing the self-hating, melodramatic angst of the traditional doomed gothic anti-hero/villain of the Romantic period (or the uncontrollable greed for experience exhibited in both Goethe and Marlow's Faustus interpretations), Sheil's characters are contradictions of conservative principles, desires and motivations. Neither a ghost story writer proper nor a fantasist strictly in the Lewis or Morris mold, Shiel's ideas joined the adventurous with the uncanny, both reflecting and subverting the natural world. Likewise, his style, no less important to the fiction's success as his themes, invited suspension of disbelief. Not for Shiel, the domestic terrors of the hearth-ghost or the simplistic condemnation of abnormality. When Shiel does unveil the spectral both its appearance and its subsequent effect on people are more ambiguous in tone than what is expected in traditional supernaturalism. Exploring the philosophical resonance of the unknown, Shiel created in emotionally mysterious, sensitively heightened characters exotic flesh-and-blood representations of cosmic independence and cold intellectual power.

Moments of terror-laden friction -- emotionally charged moments of explosion -- abound in this collection. Introduced by Brian Stableford, this volume instills a sense of both mysticism and earthly relevance to fantasies which celebrate the outré in the truest sense of the term, allowing imagination to run unfettered. The result? Stories without genres, nightmares without boundaries.

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