The House of Sounds and Others by M.P. Shiel
Reviewed by Greg Beatty
24 January 2006
At the most recent World Fantasy Convention, S.T. Joshi received a special award for his scholarship. While Joshi has written tirelessly on a range of topics related to speculative fiction, this scholarship has focused largely on the weird fiction tradition. Joshi is a master of H.P. Lovecraft lore, and has provided the foundation of a new critical understanding of the weird tale, establishing or reviving a canon in this area through critical works such as The Weird Tale (1990), The Modern Weird Tale (2001), and The Evolution of the Weird Tale (2004), as well as editing a number of single author collections that have formed part of the lineage. The House of Sounds and Others is one of these collections. Specifically, in addition to providing the entire text of Shiel's peculiar novel The Purple Cloud, Joshi provides eight other stories by Shiel.
While it is clear why Lovecraft respected Shiel so highly, and why he should be considered a canonical figure in the weird fiction tradition, it is less clear precisely how much this volume will appeal to the contemporary reader. Don't get me wrong. The stories contained herein are masterfully weird, and often a pleasure to read, but most often, they are an intellectual pleasure, rather than an emotional one.
This is largely due to Shiel's pace and style, and plays out most fully in The Purple Cloud. The lead character is on an expedition to the North Pole when a mysterious cloud moves across the world, wiping out the entire human race—or so it seems for years. (He eventually encounters a woman.) Shiel allows his lead character to explore an empty planet slowly, unwrapping the aftermath of the cloud with meticulous detail. He drifts from place to place, noting how different individuals, races, and cultures faced their deaths. This would be sufficiently creepy, but he also hears voices that convince him he is being pulled between the White and the Black, forces of light and dark in this world. The problem with this for the modern reader is, as noted above, the pace: Shiel is content to follow his character down a street for a page in which nothing happens except that he notices decay and reflects on its meaning. Too quiet and subtle by half.
By contrast, this fine focus works well in the shorter stories, where more readers expect the contemplation of moods and somewhat abstracted passions to be the focus. My favorites of the shorter pieces are "Xelucha" and "The House of Sounds." In both of those pieces lush description and a personal style evoke truly strange, but convincing sequences of events. At his best, Shiel creates a dreamlike state in which all that happens is convincing according to its own logic, and which moves vividly from image to image. While some stories, like "The Case of Euphemia Raphash," echo Poe's macabre detective stories, others foreshadow our finest contemporary weird writers, such as Ligotti. This collection won't be for everyone, but it is nicely wrought.