Rediscovered: An Ossuary of Paper and Board for a Rajah of Words


You snooze and you lose.

Of course, it doesn’t help anything if the item you are about to buy is done in a print run of only about 85 copies, published in Bucharest. . . .

By the moment I inquired, An Ossuary for M. P. Shiel — The Final Years 1923-1947 was gone. I’d been waiting to read it — patiently enough, I must say — for a couple of years.

In effect, Ossuary is the third of three volumes of biography on Shiel by Harold Billings. I reviewed the first two books in 2012, and made clear I was ready to finish the trilogy when the set became complete.

Billings, now age 84 and climbing toward 85 later this year, decided that doing a full volume to equal in size the other two was something he no longer felt he wanted to do, using his time instead for fiction and a new story collection from Ex Occidente Press. So he cut down the explication and instead assembled under one set of covers the data you need to piece together Shiel’s final years — lots of letters, memoirs, dates, places. Starts off with Shiel kicking around Italy, ends with his famous (for Shiel fans) residence in L’Abri. Only bit I consider “missing” is Shiel fan Malcolm Ferguson’s account of visiting the writer in his last home, but any real fan of the author can find that one. I liked Ferguson’s description of the place, the info on Shiel’s maniacal running schedule, many miles every day.

While I have yet to see a copy of the actual book — a copy sold on eBay for a small fortune recently — Billings did appreciate my sincere interest enough to pop me a text. I read it the next day.

Some favorite quotes:

First, Shiel to his publisher about a new novel: “. . . but it is hardly half-finished yet. Most of my time in Italy was spent swatting flies.”

Billings: “There was trace decadence in all Shiel’s work.”

The writer Carl Van Vechten to publisher Alfred A. Knopf, dated October 3, 1923: “. . . I have now read nineteen of Shiel’s twenty-one books with growing enthusiasm. Even his less good work has a certain interest after one gets the hang of his mad and brilliant manner. . . . He is an artist, and in his strange way an important one.”

Yeah, you get the Shiel bug, you’ve got a new hobby.

I wonder if someone who has yet to discover Shiel may come along and get the biography urge, and produce a “standard” bio, mining the generous info Billings has assembled, and the bibliographical detail compiled by A. Reynolds Morse, the insights noted by Steve Eng and John D. Squires and others.

I’m not expecting or predicting such a bio, but the data from Billings crossbred with more info on the various books, it could be done.

And another option, to possibly grab more Shiel enthusiasts from the milling throngs: eBooks for the Billings bios. Why not?

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