Prince Zaleski (Shiel)

  • By M.P. Shiel
  • First published: UK: John Lane, 1895

A Russian nobleman sits in a domed chamber in the middle of a labyrinth in a ruined abbey, smoking bhang from a gemmed chibouque, brooding in a “lonesome room gloomy in its lunar bath of soft perfumed light, shrouded in the sullen voluptuousness of plushy, narcotic-breathing draperies”. He is 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 rest of men!” This hermit’s only companions are a negro servant and a mummified Egyptian priest; his only visitor Shiel himself, come with news of some bizarre murder. The savant presses hashish (prepared by his own hands) on his guest, while he discourses in a somnolent, half-mystic vein.

Shiel’s tales are a Decadent response to the popularity of Sherlock Holmes: written under the spell of Poe, and published by John Lane, publisher of Wilde and Beardsley. At times, Shiel’s style soars to poetic fancy; we are reminded of the Wilde of Salomé and Dorian Gray, or of Flecker.

  • Nor yet am I ready to weigh anchor, and reeve halliard, and turn my prow over the watery paths of the wine-brown Deeps.
  • I have here beside me an Arab blade of subtle Damascene steel, insinuous to pierce and to hew, with which in a street of Bethlehem I saw a Syrian’s head cleft open – a gallant stroke! The edges of this I have made bright and white for a nuptial of blood.
  • In the shape of a cloud, the pitch of a thrush’s note, the nuance of a sea-shell you would find, had you only insight enough, inductive and deductive cunning enough, not only a meaning, but, I am convinced, a quite endless significance.

At others, it sinks under its weight of imagery and purple prose, like his admirer Lovecraft.

“He was nothing if not superlative: his diatribes, now culminating in a very extravaganza of hyperbole — now sailing with loose wing through the downy, witched, Dutch cloud-heaps of some quaintest tramontane Nephelococcugia of thought — now laying down law of the Medes for the actual world of to-day — had oft-times the strange effect of bringing back to my mind the very singular old-epic epithet, [Greek: aenemoen] — airy — as applied to human thought. The mere grip of his memory was not simply extraordinary, it had in it a token, a hint, of the strange, the pythic — nay, the sibylline. And as his reflecting intellect, moreover, had all the lightness of foot of a chamois kid, unless you could contrive to follow each dazzlingly swift successive step, by the sum of which he attained his Alp-heights, he inevitably left on you the astounding, the confounding impression of mental omnipresence.”

The Zaleski stories look forward, too, to Borges: labyrinthine, fantastical plots, steeped in antiquarian lore and philosophy. “The Race of Orven” is an accursed clan who all die in middle-age (sometimes they sire children at the age of 10, or are born before their own fathers); and “The Stone of the Edmundsbury Monks” involves the Assassins and precious stones with souls more intelligent than men.

The third story presents a secret society devoted to eugenics through murder. Prince Zaleski agrees with their views, although not their methods. Medical science, he argues, is the enemy of civilization, because it keeps the unfit (the weak, the unsightly) alive. “Can it be fated that the most advanced civilization of the future shall needs have in it, as the first and chief element of its glory, the most barbarous of all the rituals of barbarism – the immolation of hecatombs which wail a muling human wail? Is it indeed part of man’s strange destiny through the deeps of Time that he one day bow his back to the duty of pruning himself as a garden, so that he run not to a waste wilderness?” This secret society model themselves on the Spartans, and commit their first crimes in Germany. Their name? “The S.S.”

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