Dweller in the Tomb of Mausolus: The Return of Prince Zaleski

by Philip Lister

The most decadent and imperial detective in fiction (and presumably in reality), M. P. Shiel's Prince Zaleski, is about to enjoy a renaissance. Tartarus Press plans to publish the first complete collection of Zaleski adventures, while Xavier Legrand-Ferronnière and Anne-Sylvie Homassel of Le Visage Vert, the French journal of horror, fantasy and mystery, are hoping to publish his adventures in translation.* In addition, an American film producer, Charles Cohen, has acquired the rights to 'The S.S.' from Shiel's literary executor Javier Marías; so we may yet see the pale, elegant figure of the prince, wrapped in his Babylonian-style scarlet robe, on the big screen -- or possibly not. Perhaps merely the basic concept of the tale is required: a secret fraternity dedicated to ridding the world of what its members perceive to be the unfit. One can, unfortunately, imagine the scenario transplanted to some American college, where boringly handsome teens plot to cleanse society under the direction of some crazed demagogic professor. The figure of Zaleski, who may be overly exotic even by American drug-culture standards, may be excised altogether, as John Gawsworth was from Robert Rylands' Last Journey, the mangled film version of Javier Marías's All Souls; but let's hope not . . .

Like Poe's detective, the Chevalier Auguste Dupin, Zaleski originally appeared in only three tales: the stories that make up the Keynotes volume published by John Lane in 1895. If Shiel had not been so versatile -- he produced SF, horror, crime and future war stories, historical novels and romantic melodramas -- he would probably have enjoyed far greater celebrity by disciplining his fertile pen and cranking out a stream of Zaleski sequels. Zaleski would have entered public consciousness, rivalling Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown as an infallible crime fighter whose exploits the Victorian and Edwardian public would have eagerly followed. Generations of crime fiction enthusiasts would have taken Zaleski to their collective bosom, and Shiel could have taken the prince through a string of bizarre and exotic adventures into old age, as Conan Doyle did with Holmes: the hero of Baker Street being around sixty at the time of 'His Last Bow', at the time of the First World War. Had this been the case, Hollywood might have discovered Zaleski in the 1930s or '40s, and Basil Rathbone, Anton Walbrook or Vincent Price (a peer of Redonda, incidentally: he was appointed the Duke of Grue by Gawsworth in 1961) signed up to impersonate the cerebral sleuth for RKO or Universal. Alas, Shiel refused to settle for a cosy reputation; he was continually conquering new territory and pushing at the boundaries. In April 1895 he wrote to his sister Gussie after Prince Zaleski appeared: 'Thanks for your praise. But why do you insist on comparing me with Conan Doyle? Conan Doyle does not pretend to be a poet. I do.' These were the days when Shiel was content to adhere to the 'art for art's sake' philosophy. In later years, when he sought to use his books as vehicles for the education of the common reader, his work suffered. But most poets do not write long series of detective tales, and so Shiel was fated to abandon the prince; for a time at least.

The first Zaleski tales are now regarded as classics of their genre. Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares pay tribute to 'the mandarin M. P. Shiel' in their Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi (Buenos Aires, 1942; New York and London, 1981). The essentially sedentary nature of the prince contributed to Borges' and Casares' creation of don Isidro, who solves mysteries from the discomfort of a Buenos Aires prison cell. The authors write:

Without leaving his nightly den in the Faubourg St Germain, the gentleman Auguste Dupin captures the troublesome ape who caused the tragedies in the Rue Morgue; Prince Zaleski, from his remote palace retreat, where in sumptuous surroundings the jewel rubs shoulders with the music box, the amphora with the sarcophagus, the idol with the winged bull, solves the crimes of London; and last but not least, Max Carrados carries with him everywhere the portable jail cell of his blindness.

Zaleski appeared at just the right moment in literary history. In 1891, a catastrophe at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland deprived the British reading public of their favourite character: the news was broadcast in The Strand Magazine in December 1893, and black armbands were worn in the streets. Another enduring sleuth, Sexton Blake, had made his début precisely a year earlier, in April 1894 (see 'In-and-Out-of-Print'). Not all critics appreciated Prince Zaleski however. In the Saturday Review in April 1895 the book was savagely condemned -- by no less a critic, it appears, than H. G. Wells, who would later admire the apocalyptic splendour of The Purple Cloud and praise it in one of his books. In his address to the Horsham Rotary Club in 1933 Shiel referred to 'my friend H. G. Wells'; though the villainous womanizer E. P. Crooks in his Rosicrucian tale 'The Primate of the Rose' is believed to be a caricature of Wells. One wonders what Shiel made of the notice in the Saturday Review:

This we sincerely hope, is the low water-mark in 'Keynotes'. We doubt if Mr John Lane in his short but brilliant career has ever published anything half so bad before. Prince Zaleski is Sherlock Holmes 'volumed in a Turkish beneesh' . . . For Baker Street there is a 'lonesome room, shrouded in the sullen voluptuousness of plushy, narcotic-breathing draperies'. But there is no doubt of its being Sherlock -- demented: he has the pallor, the woven fingers, the habits of stimulants and prolonged concentration, the uninteresting narrative friend, all the old attributes . . . The style of the book is inimitable, a veritable frenzy of impure English . . . But the book is too foolish even to keep one laughing at it. We fail to see where the 'Keynote' comes in.

Well, you either admire Prince Zaleski or you don't. Quite why Zaleski is an exile is never explained. Shiel states in the first tale, 'The Race of Orven': 'Never without grief and pain could I remember the fate of Prince Zaleski -- victim of a too importunate, too unfortunate Love, which the fulgor of the throne itself could not abash; exile perforce from his native land, and voluntary exile from the world of men!' (Wells, or the Saturday Review critic, took exception to this fulsomely exotic opening.) Had there been an enduring series Shiel would perhaps have chronicled this fatal romance. And it would also have been wonderful to see him pitted against, or in league with, Shiel's beautiful femme fatale Xélucha. What a team they would have made!

Zaleski's country mansion -- later we learn it is an abbey -- is saturated in Poesque gloom. Shiel writes: 'It was a vast palace of the older world standing lonely in the midst of woodland, and approached by a sombre avenue of poplars and cypresses, through which the sunlight hardly pierced.' The abbey-mansion is 'a vast tomb of Mausolus': 'The hall was constructed in the manner of a Roman atrium, and from the oblong pool of turgid water in the centre a troop of fat and otiose rats fled weakly squealing at my approach.' The house is deserted of people and furnishings, and the corridors and apartments are choked with dust. But in the prince's remote tower-room, all is opulence and the treasures of lost ages:

The room was not a large one, but lofty. Even in the semi-darkness of the very faint greenish lustre radiated from an open censerlike lampas of fretted gold in the centre of the domed encausted roof, a certain incongruity of barbaric gorgeousness in the furnishing filled me with amazement. The air was heavy with the scented odour of this light, and the fumes of the narcotic cannabis sativa ¾ the base of the bhang of the Mohammedans ¾ in which I knew it to be the habit of my friend to assuage himself. The hangings were of wine-coloured velvet, heavy, gold-fringed and embroidered at Nurshedabad . . . Side by side rested a palaeolithic implement, a Chinese 'wise man', a Gnostic gem, an amphora of Graeco-Etruscan work. The general effect was a bizarrerie of half-weird sheen and gloom. Flemish sepulchral brasses companied strangely with runic tablets, miniature paintings, a winged bull, Tamil scriptures on lacquered leaves of the talipot, mediaeval reliquaries richly gemmed, Brahmin gods. One whole side of the room was occupied by an organ whose thunder in that circumscribed place must have set all these relics of dead epochs clashing and jingling in fantastic dances. As I entered, the vaporous atmosphere was palpitating to the low, liquid tinkling of an invisible musical box. The prince reclined on a couch from which a draping of cloth-of-silver rolled torrent over the floor. Beside him, stretched in its open sarcophagus which rested on three brazen trestles, lay the mummy of an ancient Memphian, from the upper part of which the brown cerements had rotted or been rent, leaving the hideousness of the naked, grinning countenance exposed to view.

The mansion is a doppelgänger of the House of Usher. Indeed, Sam Moskowitz called Zaleski 'Sherlock Holmes in the House of Usher'. The story's opening reflects that of Poe's tale. Poe's unnamed narrator approaches the bleak mansion and is conducted to Roderick Usher's apartment, where 'Upon my entrance, Usher rose from a sofa on which he had been lying at full length' as Zaleski does on the narrator's entry: 'Discarding his gemmed chibouque and an old vellum reprint of Anacreon, Zaleski rose hastily and greeted me with warmth . . .' The description of the tower room owes much to the apartments from 'House of Usher' and 'Ligeia'. Roderick Usher's chamber is pervaded by a Gothic gloom:

The room in which I found myself was very large and lofty. The windows were long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within . . . Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered.

In 'Ligeia' the chamber has an added richness and opulence:

The room lay in a high turret of the castellated abbey, was pentagonal in shape, and of capacious size . . . The ceiling, of gloomy-looking oak, was excessively lofty, vaulted, and elaborately fretted with the wildest and most grotesque specimens of a semi-Gothic, semi-Druidical device. From out the most central recess of this melancholy vaulting, depended, by a single chain of gold with long links, a huge censer of the same metal, Saracenic in pattern . . .

In each of the angles of the chamber stood on end a gigantic sarcophagus of black granite, from the tombs of the kings over against Luxor, with their aged lids full of immemorial sculpture.

Zaleski would have felt at home amid such dark splendour. There is a long lineage for such settings: these romantic eyries date back to Horace Walpole and Mrs Radcliffe. Few readers even today possess the wherewithal to reside in such apartments (Poe himself lived in a succession of humble dwellings), and so it is a facile method of creating a vicarious thrill for both author and reader.

The situation of detective mastermind and faithful companion, amanuensis and Boswell, reflects Poe's Dupin tales. We discover that Zaleski's companion is named Shiel halfway through the first tale. In 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' the nameless narrator (Poe himself, in dreams?) and Dupin inhabit 'a time-eaten and grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions into which we did not inquire, and tottering to its fall in a retired and desolate portion of the Faubourg St Germain'. Dupin, like Zaleski and Roderick Usher, enjoys the gloomy and crepuscular:

It was a freak of fancy in my friend (for what else shall I call it?) to be enamoured of the Night for her own sake; and into this bizarrerie, as into all his others, I quietly fell . . . The sable divinity would not herself dwell with us always; but we could counterfeit her presence. At the first dawn of the morning we closed all the massy shutters of our old building; lighted a couple of tapers which, strongly perfumed, threw out only the ghastliest and feeblest of rays. By the aid of these we then busied our souls in dreams ¾ reading, writing, or conversing, until warned by the clock of the advent of the true Darkness.

Besides Dupin, Zaleski's origins have variously been attributed to the character of Count Stenbock, Prince Florizel from Stevenson's New Arabian Nights and The Dynamiter and Eugene Sue's princely characters from The Mysteries of Paris and Paula Monti. Stenbock (see 'In-and-Out-of-Print') was a flamboyant Estonian aesthete and decadent. Stephen Wayne Foster in 'Prince Zaleski and Count Stenbock' in Shiel in Diverse Hands (1983) writes: 'Stenbock's rooms at Kolk [his mansion in Estonia] were filled with Pre-Raphaelite paintings, oriental shawls, peacock feathers, rosaries, a bronze statue of Eros, and so forth.' Stenbock was an opium-addict, though Zaleski's drug habit may have been suggested more directly by Sherlock Holmes' indulgence in cocaine.

Like Dupin, Zaleski is able by pure reasoning to solve the first two cases (or the first two we hear of) without stirring from his retreat. He pronounces:

'I tell you, Shiel, I know whether Mary did or did not murder Darnley; I know -- as clearly, as precisely, as a man can know -- that Beatrice Cenci was not "guilty", as certain recently-discovered documents "prove" her, but that the Shelley version of the affair, though a guess, is the correct one. It is possible, by taking thought, to add one cubit -- or say a hand, or a dactyl -- to your stature; you may develop powers slightly -- very slightly, but distinctly, both in kind and degree -- in advance of those of the mass . . . '

Zaleski looks forward, as Shiel did as a social Darwinist, to evolution improving man's faculties and moral sense: ' . . . and who shall say what presciences, prisms, séances, what introspective craft, Genie apocalypses, shall not then become possible to the few who stand spiritually in the van of men'. The optimistic Shiel was not to know that mankind would become so reliant on technology in the succeeding century that our undoubted psychic gifts have atrophied rather than advanced. And he was woefully off-target in predicting an end to world war (see below).

The first tale, 'The Race of Orven', concerns the death of Lord Pharanx, who is found at Orven Hall lying on his bed stabbed through the heart, with a bullet in his brain. The tale is full of surreal and macabre touches such as the 'front phalanges of a human hand' -- those of the chief suspect Maude Cibras -- found outside the window. The second story 'The Stone of the Edmundsbury Monks' concerns a stolen gem which a wily Persian, Ul-Jabal, secretary to Sir Jocelin Saul (a scholar of 'Pre-Zoroastrian Theogonies'), attempts to steal. The story reflects Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart', in Ul-Jabal's nocturnal haunting of Sir Jocelin's bedchamber. Zaleski's mummy, a Memphian priest, figures slightly in the plot, and though Shiel utilizes the eastern legend of the Assassins and the Old Man of the Mountains to good effect the working out of the mystery is grotesquely unbelievable.

The Zaleski tale that has generated the most fascination, because of its philosophical dimension, not to mention its controversial and prophetic nature (consider the title), is 'The S.S.' In this story we learn that the mansion is 'R ---- Abbey, in the county of M ----'. (In later years, in 'The Missing Merchants', the county becomes Monmouthshire and Zaleski's abbey is not far away from Arthur Machen's Caerleon.) The greatest mystery in the story is the date of its setting: 1875. In 1875 Matthew Phipps Shiell (the original spelling) was an adventurous ten-year-old scaling mountains tops and circumnavigating sulphurous springs in his native Montserrat. Perhaps Shiel didn't wish to be too closely associated with the 'Watson' character; or did he prefer his readers to imagine he was an older, more authoritative figure than the twenty-nine-year-old of reality? Did he perhaps wish Zaleski to 'predate' Sherlock Holmes as the first consulting detective? Or was it simply a literary jest? Shiel also put himself into his turn-of-the-century trilogy, The Purple Cloud, The Lord of the Sea and The Last Miracle, as the recipient of the notebook transcripts of the future visions of Mary Wilson, the psychic, who under hypnosis, relates the future events of the novels; though, as has been pointed out, the three novels present inconsistent projections of the future. The only way to reconcile the differing scenarios is to invoke the concept of alternative worlds, with divergent histories. Perhaps Shiel delighted in presenting his readers and critics with such ambiguities: the inconsistencies surely must have occurred to him while he was writing the books. Shiel also refers to Britain as 'my country' in Prince Zaleski - an odd turn of phrase for an Irish Montserratian.

The deaths in 'The S.S.' begin with that of an elderly wealthy man of science, Professor Schleschinger, a consulting laryngologist. He plans to marry a beautiful and accomplished young woman, in order to create a direct heir: his own children, from his first two marriages, having died. Shortly before the wedding the professor is found dead in his stately mansion near the Unter den Linden in Berlin. Lying by his bed is a piece of papyrus 'on which were traced certain grotesque and apparently meaningless figures'. This strip was taken from a woman's mouth after her death in a slum area of the city. A doctor examining Schleschinger finds that 'neatly folded beneath the dead tongue, lay just another piece of papyrus as that which he had removed from the bed.' The strip is coated with honey but contains no poison. Within weeks of the professor's death, a 'frenzied death-dance' begins: eight thousand people in German, France and Britain die, whether by suicide or murder; many have 'figured, honey-smeared slips of papyrus beneath their tongues'. Shiel's readers will have known that no such epidemic of suicides occurred in Europe in 1875. Perhaps Shiel was testing how far he could get readers to suspend disbelief. In this tale Zaleski leaves the abbey to track down the assassins, the Society of Sparta, dedicated to purging the race of the sickly and diseased. Paradoxically, Zaleski sympathizes with the concept of eugenics:

'We no longer have world-serious war -- but in its place we have a scourge, the effect of which on the modern state is precisely the same as the effect of war on the ancient, only, -- in the end, -- far more destructive, far more subtle, sure, horrible, disgusting. The name of this pestilence is Medical Science . . . Do you know that at this moment your hospitals are crammed with beings in human likeness suffering from a thousand obscure and subtly-ineradicable ills, all of whom, if left alone, would die almost at once, but ninety in the hundred of whom will, as it is, be sent forth "cured", like missionaries of hell, and the horrent shapes of Night and Acheron, to mingle in the pure river of humanity the poison-taint of their protean vileness? . . . What then, you ask, would I do with these unholy ones? To save the State would I pierce them with a sword, or leave them to the slow throes of their agonies? Ah, do not expect me to answer that question - I do not know what to answer. The whole spirit of the present is one of a broad and beautiful, if quite thoughtless, humanism, and I, a child of the present, cannot but be borne along by it, coerced into sympathy with it. "Beautiful" I say: for if anywhere in the world you have seen a sight more beautiful than a group of hospital savants bending with endless scrupulousness over a little pauper child, concentrating upon its frailty the whole human skill and wisdom of ages, so have not I.'

Shiel doubtless witnessed such scenes as a medical student at St Bartholomew's Hospital. Zaleski's phraseology -'these unholy ones' - chills the blood. To our eyes, after the Nazis put these doctrines of 'racial hygiene' into practice, the concept of eugenics and selective breeding of the fittest seems immoral and obscene; but such ideas were common in Victorian and Edwardian society, among right and left political thinkers. Consider this: ' . . . whole masses of the human population are . . . inferior in their claim upon the future . . . they cannot be given opportunities or trusted with power . . . To give them equality is to sink to their level, to protect and cherish them is to be swamped in their fecundity.' The new masters must 'check the procreation of base and servile types, of fear-driven and cowardly souls, of all that is mean and ugly and bestial in the souls, bodies, or habits of men'. The coming world order must 'tolerate no dark corners where the people of the Abyss may fester'. A Hitlerian rant from Mein Kampf or the Nuremburg rallies perhaps? No, these passages come from that friend of humanity, H. G. Wells. They appear in Anticipations (1901). Such a naïve philosophy fails to recognize that healthy people are not automatically virtuous. Mankind cannot be improved morally simply by making individuals fitter. Beethoven was deaf and Homer and Milton blind. Pope was a dwarf, and who would be without Stephen Hawking?

A scientific creed which seems practical in an armchair in a book-filled Victorian study leads inexorably to the gas-chambers of Auschwitz. But as an evolutionist Shiel cared more for the race than for individuals, and so he was able to write of such things with a cool detachment.

Encouraged by the more businesslike Gawsworth, Shiel resurrected Zaleski in his old age, though with little success, and a fourth tale, 'The Return of Prince Zaleski', was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1955 and in Prince Zaleski and Cummings King Monk by Arkham House in 1977. This was rewritten by Gawsworth from a story called 'Land-Lease' and is also known as 'The Murena Murder'. In a 'Survivor's Note', reproduced in The Works of M. P. Shiel (Vol. II, 1980), Gawsworth states: ' . . . The Missing Merchants and The Return of Cummings King Monk are M.P.S. text (90%) J.G. text (10%) collaborations. I have yet to spur myself to complete The Hargan Inheritance [which exists as a six-page manuscript fragment] and permit Prince Zaleski to sleep more soundly than Count Dracula.' Whether the statement about the percentage of Gawsworth input is accurate can hardly be determined now. But Gawsworth, for all his ego, knew that Shiel's name on a tale meant a great deal and his name comparatively little. But we must be thankful that, like Dracula, Zaleski refuses to fade away: his imminent resurrection is welcome.

The Complete Zaleski is now available from Tartarus Press