Rediscovered: The Shiel Biographies

By this time last year I had poked my way through the first two of three projected volumes covering the life of M. P. Shiel, and happened to bump into Vince Emery while I was reading along.

“Give me one reason I would never have thought of before about why I’d want to read a biography of Shiel” — or something odd like that — Vince asked.

I have no idea where Vince comes up with his rhetorical gambits. But in this instance I thought I had a solid answer:

“Okay, you have a British writer of the same era as H. G. Wells, also known for early works of science fiction — who was raised as a black kid in the Caribbean.”

Even Vince nodded, okay, that’s good, that’s interesting. . . .

Arthur Machen, a fellow scrivener alongside Shiel in the London of the 1890s and after, once noted that they had a parlor game where people would try to guess what race Shiel may have been. A mix of Irish and African roots, born in Montserrat, for half a century Shiel has maintained his toehold on fame courtesy of his fantasy and science fiction writings, such as The Purple Cloud, but I think he also deserves some attention in Black Studies — neither area probably will ever carry him into an overall revival, but a couple of solid niche spots beats the typical slide into complete obscurity.

Harold Billings goes into depth on the ancestral mix in his volume covering the early life, but the idea is summed up quickly by a page of photos of Shiel’s boyhood chums. No white kids there. The photos throughout the project are a major asset, most never before seen — and most coming from the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in the University of Texas in Austin, where some of the Hammett archives, such as Including Murder, also are housed. If I have it right, Billings was director of the HRC for some years — or director of the whole library system of which the HRC is a part.

Apparently, Billings intended to write his Shiel biography circa the late 50s or early 60s, then got off into other things for a few decades. The delay at least allowed for one major biographical incident to come to light, which might not have turned up earlier: recently uncovered details of Shiel’s imprisonment doing hard labor for molesting a twelve-year-old stepdaughter.

Everyone with an interest in the author knew Shiel was a complete egomaniac, his various affairs and marriages, usually to younger women, part of the record — and covered by the photos in these books. But if you’re doing a biography, you cover the life that was lived, and that episode finishes off volume two on Shiel’s middle years.

Billings displays some nice writing in these books, but you can tell that he knows this project will be the only full biography of Shiel likely ever written. So you can bog down in details about family members in the Caribbean, and every piece of biographical info that can be found makes its way in, as in a storehouse for anyone interested in the writer later on.

In addition to the many photos, every letter gets quoted. Major contemporary articles on Shiel get quoted in full, which you wouldn’t do in most biographies — just sample quotes to get the gist across.

But this is the long-delayed chance to get the life out there, and Billings is going for it.

If you’re not familiar with the fiction, Billings doesn’t recap every plot — as much as he’s putting in, he understands that you can’t put everything into one set of books — and the writings mostly get left on the side for the critics.

And without question this project is aimed at Shiel readers, who should be familiar with the plots.

Would any kind of general reader come to a biography of M. P. Shiel?

Would Random House release such a book?

Billings and his publisher aren’t overestimating the market — I believe Early Years saw a print run of some 300 trade paperback copies, Middle Years fifty hardcovers and 100 in trade paper, something like that. Beautifully produced, solid bookmaking — enough copies going out into the world to preserve this dramatic and flawed life.

And now here I am a year later waiting for the Final Years, where Billings suggests that Shiel had much more to do with establishing the legend of the literary realm of Redonda than we suspected.

But Billings is now, what, age 82?

That’s brinksmanship.

I guess I won’t hold my breath until the third volume completes the set and the life, but if it does see print, yes, I’ll be in line to read it.


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