THE LOST CLUB JOURNAL

"L'Abri"

by Malcolm M. Fergusson

The Redondan Cultural Foundation Newsletter exists to promote interest in the life and works of M. P. Shiel, but there is no reason why King Felipe of Redonda shouldn't be celebrated in this journal also; since the editorial addresses of the Lost Club are those of the Cultural Foundation. Hence this enjoyable and informative wartime reminiscence by a peer of Redonda, shorter versions of which were published in Famous Fantastic Mysteries in August 1949 and in A. Reynolds Morse's The Works of M.P. Shiel: "The Shielography Updated", Volume III, Part 2 (1980). Malcolm M. Ferguson was honoured with a dukedom by John Gawsworth, King Juan I, in the first Birthday Honours List in June 1947. Mr Ferguson, who lives in Concord, Massachusetts, is officially retired from his profession of bookseller, though he still deals a little as a sideline. Once a bookman... It is interesting to note that in one of his letters quoted here, Shiel refers to his old associate W.T. Stead, the crusading editor of the Pall Mall Gazette and the Review of Reviews. Although Stead was the creator of the New Journalism in the 1880s, and a prominent spiritualist - he has an appreciation society - he is perhaps best remembered for his demise: he was one of those lost on the Titanic in 1912. For a catalogue of publications about Shiel and his works, and the Kingdom of Redonda, write to J.D. Squires (jdsbooks@ameritech.net), The Vainglory Press, PO Box 292333, Kettering, Ohio 45429, USA.

In February 1944, just over a month after the arrival of my army unit in England, a letter came through from August Derleth giving me three addresses of English correspondents. First of these was "M.P. Shiel of Purple Cloud fame - lives at L'Abri, Worthing Road, Horsham, Sussex".

The name and fame were new to me, for the paragraph in Lovecraft's masterful Supernatural Horror in Literature mentioning "The House of Sounds" as Shiel's "undoubted masterpiece" and praising The Purple Cloud and "Xélucha", had entirely slipped my mind.

Being in the west of England, while Sussex is below London, I could not readily get up to London on a short pass, but needed a furlough. It was with the first opportunities at a furlough in London that I wrote to M.P. Shiel, asking for advice on the best London bookshops in the lower price-ranges. He replied cordially, referring me to Mr Benson Herbert who worked for Lloyd Cole (publisher of Above All Else), and wishing me success.

At about this time I bought a first edition of The Purple Cloud for 4/6 (90c). I set about reading it at once, and on the evening I put it down finished and retired with my head all a-whirl with the magic of it, the Germans bombed Falmouth a dozen miles away, and the pyre of an oil-tank flaming in the city down-river impressed me as the real wantonness traced out the fictional arson of Adam Jeffson, the Purple Cloud's solitary man.

It was late autumn before I got up to London on a week's furlough, where my weekdays were spent in wandering as far afield as Limehouse, and gathering in books along the way. Thus it was late in the forenoon of a Sunday that I set out from Waterloo Station, for Horsham, carrying in my pocket a copy of Above All Else.

Somewhat later I arrived to find Horsham a pleasant enough small city, which would probably present itself as a moderately satisfactory birthplace for Shelley to those who were eager to make it conform to pattern. But alas, I found I had five miles yet to go, since the New Road (Shiel's stationery gave this clue) was that far out on the Worthing Road. But rather than wait half an hour for a bus I started out and was soon picked up.

New Road, however, took some discovering. It proved to be a lane running parallel to a hedgerow for a hundred feet, beyond which there were plainly three houses. I had been directed by a gasoline station attendant that the house I sought was on the left before the lane curved. After seeing no house there, and disregarding his advice, I returned and found an old, ill-tended garden with a path down it leading into an evergreen grove. A drizzle of rain had started, and in it I could not see down the dark path whether there was indeed a house there or not. I found that there was; it would be "L'Abri" - "the shelter" - and aptly titled. The building could be called a cottage, though it contained a second storey. I knocked on the large green door, with its mail slot which must have received my letter, and waited a full minute.

Then the door opened into a pitch black interior, and I was introducing myself to an elderly man, about five feet five, his full head of white hair forming a dandelion clock. It was M.P. Shiel. He was dressed for comfort in a worn velvet dressing jacket, trousers free of crease, and house slippers which disguised his gait into a shuffle.

He engineered me through the dark hallway into a sitting room, where a handful of coal embers, two guttering candles and a window at the rear, blocked by sodden underbrush, feebly contributed to the room's little light. M.P. Shiel apparently shared with his Prince Zaleski the restfulness of a dimly lit interior.

The room was quite comfortable, and as we sat across the hearth from one another, I noticed on a table by his chair were piled the manuscripts of his New Testament study in a neat hand. He was working from the original Greek, he said, finding no difficulty picking it up. Nearby was a copy of Derleth's anthology Sleep No More, containing Shiel's "House of Sounds".

That he lived alone, that his senses were in no way impaired - that his eyesight was particularly keen to permit him to write in his small, clear hand in that room even under its best lightning conditions, were apparent.

With his active past, he had none of the obsessions that older men living alone often have. That he lacked the magpie habit which makes for paranoia was manifest when I asked about his own books, and he said that a young friend - an artist - had made heavy inroads by borrowing, so that he was without copies of many titles. With publishers after him for copies this must have been quite vexing. Nor was there anything of the misanthrope in Shiel. Brilliant Shiel certainly was, but never a bit of temperament mastering the man, as with Poe or Coleridge, rather the two - temperament and man - co-operating.

"L'Abri" was on a line traversed by German planes crossing to bomb London, Shiel said (since they came in from all sides). He watched them many a night, and sought out the too-few gallant defenders with interest. It is possible that he still slept during the day and wrote all night (as H.P. Lovecraft and Sheridan Le Fanu) though of his hours, and whether regularly or irregularly adhered to, I have no idea.

He read slowly, he said. He did not write of conventional ghosts or supernatural phenomena (this in our discussion of the Derleth anthology), and felt that if the supernatural were to be written about, greater care should be given the motivation and particularly the manner of execution of the suppositious being's actions, so that, in effect, it doesn't appear to be a man hiding under the hide or ectoplasm of this conjured creature. He added that he enjoyed reading Charles Fort, the American writer who harangued at science for its myopia and thrust forward a bewildering array of data on the supernormal into its range of vision. Shiel spoke of the migration of lemmings and suchlike matters as typical of this interest.

I asked him if he had known Aubrey Beardsley, talented fin de siècle illustrator who did the cover and title-page designs for Prince Zaleski and Shapes in the Fire. No, he had not, but he knew these books' able publisher, John Lane, very well. And Shiel also knew John Lane's kinsman, Allen, head of Penguin Books Ltd, who today holds a position in English publishing equal to that held by Lane in the '90s in charge of the Bodley Head, with his famous house organ The Yellow Book. Allen Lane, Shiel told me, had written him, hoping that Penguin could manage a paperback edition of The Purple Cloud. They do fine work, we agreed. I am quite sure, however, that at this writing they haven't produced the book, having had a succession of production problems to cope with on one hand, and some large ideas, such as their series on Shaw and Wells, and during the war, their Prisoners of War book service, on the other. [Penguin never, in fact, published The Purple Cloud, though a paperback edition was brought out by Panther in 1969: the Editors.]

I believe that Shiel also knew Bertrand Russell personally, or as a correspondent perhaps, or so he intimated when I said that I envied him his study in philosophy; that mine consisted almost wholly of attendance at a series of Bertrand Russell's lucid lectures at Harvard.

He was interested when I described the winters in my native New England and in Derleth's Wisconsin as quite so rigorous, with an offhand remark about the Gulf Stream saving England from equal rigours. No, he countered, explaining England's meteorological advantage in terms of the earth's tilt as it faced the sun, contributing as well.

As I rose to go I could see more of the room - a lowboy with wine carafes, English cigarettes for friends, correspondence, a sketch, perhaps of his first wife, and behind me was a bookcase with some three hundred titles. For "L'Abri" was a snug harbour.

Thus I left him, to go into the swirl of fog and rain.

Since then we exchanged five letters, a sixth of mine being unanswered through death's intervention.

I quote from them in part:

March 21, '45 (L'Abri): That is thrillingly decent of you to send me (just received) the copy of The Purple Cloud, which, as it happens, comes in very à propos of my wants... Derleth seems an amiable fellow, or do I think so because he is bringing out, as head of Arkham House, two anthology-books of my tales? This may be owing to the fact that my last book Beyond All Else had a sale in quite a different category to any previous books, being almost a "best seller". [I doubt if Above All Else, or as earlier titled, This Above All, turned the trick, or if Derleth rates it among Shiel's half-dozen best. It is interesting to note that Shiel is consistently easygoing about titles, rights to royalties, and such matters. Perhaps he would have ascribed this to his Irish antecedents - for herein Shiel is more like than Shaw. Shiel's letter continues] Of that too I want a copy, and, if you come across, you might send, but I must be allowed this time to pay for, as you have already been uncommercially over-good... Derleth, by the way, is himself a writer, and his novels have a savour and diathesis not unlike Poe, but distinctly their own. And do you know Ellery Queen? Derleth sent Queen an old story of mine which Queen has bought for the big sum of £20: so that I am feeling quite Americanised. Well, good luck...

July 22, '45 (L'Abri): [Received while my army unit was in Carentan, France, living in tents. This quotation reveals Shiel's interest, consideration and frankness. "The Polar Vortex", my first successful venture at writing a short story, being psychologically outré, later appeared in Weird Tales, September 1946.] Your letter was very welcome. I had just had a reference to you by August Derleth, who wrote highly of you, not writing as a publisher, but as an acquaintance. I see that you have sent him "Polar Vortex", which sounds interesting. Have you, by the way, another copy? And do you know of the competition inaugurated by Ellery Queen's Mystery Mag? It offers $5,000 in prizes, which is tempting, for best detective (mystery) stories...

Aug. 29, '45 (L'Abri): So many thanks for yours, and especially for "Polar Vortex", which I read with no little interest, though with some resentment at the bad typing, which is illegible as scribble; and some of the sentences are not very lucid - if you curse me now for saying it, you will bless me in ten years' time. This is what you need to concentrate on - clearness of meaning - lucidity; and cut out the adjectives: "the adjective is the enemy of the noun, though it agrees with it in number and gender" (Voltaire). But this said, I have nothing but admiration for the thing - its achievement in tone and mood... Thanks too for giving me name and address of Allen & Son [London bookdealers]: I will be writing them; I want badly some of my books, among them Prince Zaleski and Purple Cloud, my last copy of which I gave to the "Paramount" people, who have bought the film rights...

16 Oct. '45 (L'Abri): [Containing a money order for $2 or so] So many thanks for copy of Above All Else. I note your remark on a "hue and cry" for Shiels, which leaves me cold, as I have heard the same before; also your remark on a second honeymoon, which causes me to exclaim "Eh, boys! War has its woes."

May 9, '46 (L'Abri): So you have been to see Derleth? He is, in my opinion, quite a worth-while writer. He wrote a book [Shadow of Night, Scribner, 1943] about a man who had killed the avenger's brother; but when opportunity after opportunity came the avenger failed to take them; and I was so in love with the book, that I started to make a play of it, till a man who came to see me pointed out that the story had been used scores of times before Shakespeare used it in Hamlet, and has been used scores of times since: which shooed me off it... As to your reference to Stead, I knew him intimately, and our collaboration was more than appears from the one book, whose name I forget [Shiel's first book, The Rajah's Sapphire, 1896, for which Stead provided the plot "viva voce": the Editors]. He was essentially a journalist, and everything he touched turned to gold: If Christ Came... [to Chicago] was just journalism.

It is fitting that these remarks about Shiel take but a small portion of the space allotted to discussion of him, for they range around the few aspects which we shared, whereas most of this volume [The Works of M.P. Shiel] deals with a younger Shiel, with emphasis on the man in his prime, and those interests which attended him during the writings of his best work. That he carried into his eighties a brilliant mind, whose characteristics bore the distinctive stamp found in his work, remaining to the last unblurred and undistorted, is the chief concern here.