infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

Prince Zaleski

by MP Shiel

(Tartarus Press, £27.50, 187 pages, hardback, published 20 November 2002; ISBN: 1872621716.)

Review by William P Simmons

Admired by Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft for attaining an ethereal wedding of cosmic awe and poetic unease beyond the grasp of his peers, M.P. Shiel (1865-1947) is an author whose lyrical, emotionally-charged style proved the perfect aesthetic vehicle with which to express ideas both grandiose and macabre. Author of around 25 novels and dozens of short stories, including ornamental mysteries, exotic adventures, scientific romances, supernatural horror, and the grotesque detective narratives which this review concerns itself with, Shiel, a great thinker whose eyes looked into the soul even as they gazed towards ethereal heavens (lending a sense of dual mysticism and earthly relevance to his fantasies), interwove philosophical and sociological discourse into carefully structured labyrinths of language.

Often exploring the philosophical resonance of the "Overman" in fictions laden with a rich, baroque atmosphere and decadent plot-lines mixing images of conservatively determined beauty with the Gothic sensibilities of shadow, decay, and spiritual alienation, Shiel created in the emotionally mysterious, super-human intellect of Prince Zaleski, an exotic flesh-and-blood representation of cosmic independence and cold intellectual power, perhaps his most memorable character. Exiled from his native land (and later, self-exiled from the common affairs of men, which hold little attractiveness for an almost Faustian figure who has seen and felt all of which low, common humanity has to offer), Zaleski is neither a simplistic mirror-image of the traditional Byronic anti-hero nor a mythically reflected image of the Faustian-figure despite the similarities of mood, action, and spirit which he shares his still-life with. Lacking the self-hating, melodramatic angst of the traditional doomed gothic anti-hero/villain of the Romantic period as well as the uncontrollable greed for experience exhibited in both Goethe and Marlow's Faustus interpretations, Shiel's Zaleski is a curious contradiction of principles and cultural image, desires and motivations, the enigmatic mystery of his intentions a principle reason for the character's success. Zaleski frees his mind and sense of purpose by removing himself from the banality of the everyman, requiring the "narrator" -- a quasi-imitation to the Watson figure so crucial to the movement of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories -- to bring to his attractively gloomy confines the confounding crimes and sensational quandaries of the outside world that replenish and further identify him by allowing his deductive powers and esoteric speculations practical outlets. Above the concerns of most men, Zaleski is nevertheless refreshed by his ability to expose faults in humanities typical reasoning process and reactions to the macabre.

Prince Zaleski, an impressive, attractive offering to the macabre enthusiast's library, presents ample evidence of the title character's decadent mysticism and Shiel's prowess as a stylist, building torrents of acrobatic logic and emotional overflow with solidly layered, carefully sequenced building-blocks of description and pacing. Featuring the three tales which comprised Shiel's original collection, including "The Race Or Orven", "The Stone Of The Edmundsbury Monks", and "The S.S.", the Tartarus edition follows Shiel's single work with the posthumously published "collaborations" conducted by John Gawsworth, who re-worked the outlines of further Zaleski tales in Shiel's papers, resulting in the equally fine if somewhat less decadent The Return Of Prince Zaleski, including "The Murena Murder", "The Missing Merchants", and "The Hargen Inheritance". Although these later are revered for continuing Zaleski's gloom-laden exploits of "armchair detection" in print, the earliest Zaleski pieces are superior as both fictional art and as expressions of the decadent literary movement they both strengthened and challenged in the character of the Prince.

The Decadent movement, itself dependent on unsolvable emotional and philosophical contradictions that, if conquered, drained the perverse pessimism and act of inaction of its significance, is reflected intimately in both the "The Race Of Orven", whereupon a deteriorating aristocratic family resorts to intrigue and murder to cover up the ravages of syphilis, and in "The Stone Of The Edmundsbury Monks", which features the apparent theft of a semi-mystical jewel whose hinted mystical properties and mocking condemnations of man's instinctively flawed reasoning ability. In both these narratives Shiel creates in his physically still, intellectually active Zaleski a probable successor to Poe's C. Auguste Dupin which is discussed further by Brian Stableford in his intriguing introduction. More importantly for our purpose, Shiel's earliest Zaleski narratives depict him no less as a memento mori than the exotically gloomy furnishings within which he surrounds himself. Whereas most traditional detection leans more towards the suspense sub-genre, relying on physical foot-work and 'tea-time' deduction to accompany (and often instigate) the mental deduction of crime, Zaleski's plots focus primarily on thought-patterns, eschewing "action" in true decadent fashion.

Thoughts themselves, then, and the mental process of Zaleski, could be interpreted as the true characters of these fascinating narratives, and to these the reader's attention might best rest, particularly on the third tale, "The S.S.", which proves both the cumulative triumph and philosophical failing of the physically weak, narcotic-loving proponent of Shiel's favored "Overman". The only of the original stories where the Prince requires the aid of physical action (itself symbolic of forward progression, a contrary impulse to decadent thought), Shiel purposefully or unconsciously suggests the inability of decadence, as represented through Zaleski, to remain true to its lethargic acceptance of decline when the Prince has to leave his couch and roam secret streets to discover the mysterious plot beneath a horrid rash of apparent suicides. On the other hand, as fiction, "The S.S.", is, to my mind, Shiel's deductive masterstroke, forcing Zaleski to philosophically and emotionally confront none other than himself through the physical/intellectual confrontation against a secret society whose emotionally cold goals he supports but whose motives he finds, like himself, lacking -- something that cannot be said of this collection, which included by way of bonus the physical attractiveness expected in a Tartarus title and "A Note On The Zaleski Stoires", by R. B. Russell.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)