Review: The House of Sounds and Others

A Hellnotes Book 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) was an author whose lyrical, emotionally-charged style proved the perfect aesthetic vehicle with which to express grandiose and macabre ideas. A true eccentric, his narrative style dominates and enraptures with a mystically charged writing style. Poetry of the truest sort, the crystalline complexity of his images and sentence structure is joined by a less apparent but nevertheless crucial underlying resonance of the outré and strange.

Admired by both Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft, the later of which discovered the stylist's supernatural work in 1923, Shiel was author of around 25 novels and dozens of short stories, including grotesque detective stories, ornamental mysteries, exotic adventures, scientific romances, and supernatural horror, the last few of which make up the bulk of the fiction reprinted in The House of Sounds and Others, a collection of Shiel's hardest to find, sadly neglected weird and outré fiction - the first major collection of this author's in three decades. Part of Lovecraft's library series, the burnt offerings herein include "The House of Sounds," toted by Lovecraft as "the most haunting thing I have read in a decade" and choice offerings from Shiel's other collections, including "Shapes in the Fire," "The Pale Ape," "The Bride," and "Xelucha," perhaps the strangest ghost story in the genre. Of course the bulk of the volume, and the most substantial offering, is the novel The Purple Cloud, printed in its entirety, allowing one to gauge the true depth of the author's imagination as well as his talent to make the impossible probable, and the grotesque if not downright depressing appear, if but for the time it takes to read, beautiful in its decadence. Desolution is a key emphasis in this early hybrid of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. A forerunner of the now popular (shall we say cliché?) post-survivial fantasy explored later by King in The Stand, the novel is as much an exploration of the fragile territories of the mind and heart faced to reflect inwards (without the benefit of sound external interrelationships) as it is a thrilling account of what befalls a man who happens to find himself alone in a world bereft of human and animal life. Neither a ghost story writer proper nor a fantasist strictly in the Lewis, Tolkien, Morris mold, Shiel's ideas and the ornate way in which he wrote of them were more refined and more daring than a majority of the supernatural writers toiling in his era. Not for shiel the domestic terrors of the hearth ghost or the simplistic condemnation of the subversive which make up so much of the motivation and content of the ghostly tale, for when Shiel does unveil the spectral both its appearance and the transformations upon characters which occur as a result are far more mystical and ambiguous in tone than in more traditional horrors. Shiel was a unique, often maligned thinker. A man whose eyes looked into the soul even as they gazed towards the stars, seeing in the shadowy by-ways in-between lush tragedies of soul and mind, charnel house and pleasure dome.

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 emotionally mysterious, sensitively heightened characters exotic flesh-and-blood representations of cosmic independence and cold intellectual power. Rather possessing 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, these men and women are curious contradictions of principles and cultural images, desires and motivations. Moments of terror-laden friction - emotionally charged moments of explosion - abound in these tales, instilling 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 free unfettered, resulting in stories without genres, nightmares without bounds. Thoughts and perceptions themselves are just as much characters in these wickedly lyrical prose-poems as the flesh and blood characters that Shiel imbues with sickly, fascinating life.