I’m confident it was my pal Steve Eng who brought M. P. Shiel fully to my attention some thirty years ago. Like anyone else interested in horror and fantastic literature, I’d have come across the name already, courtesy at least of the post-apocalyptic novel The Purple Cloud or the short story “The House of Sounds,” a favorite of H. P. Lovecraft. In his typical fashion, Eng roped me into a project that was then underway, a book of essays about Shiel. Borrowing some incredibly rare titles, such as The Weird O’It, from the Shielophile John D. Squires, I read each and every book with a major mystery or crime angle to it and knocked out “The Mysteries of M. P. Shiel.” From that point on, I was on board, and still get email notification of any bits of Shiel-related news that pop up — a constant trickle, because however unlikely it seems, someone is always doing something new on Shiel, from a little essay to the multi-volume biography Harold Billings is gradually releasing, one major era of Shiel’s life per book.
And one thing leads to another, so eventually I’d have been interested in Shiel if only because he lived in Gray’s Inn in London when Arthur Machen, one of my absolute favorite writers, also lived in that sprawling complex. Check page 198 of the current Hammett tour book and you’ll find their addresses from that era, when the two were pals and exercise enthusiast Shiel remembered that about the only activity Machen indulged in by that time was taking his bulldog Juggernaut for walks.
Dashiell Hammett also brushes up to this scene — in his 1925 Black Mask yarn “The Gutting of Couffignal” you find the Continental Op reading a book “called The Lord of the Sea” with “plots and counterplots, kidnappings, murders, prison-breakings, forgeries and burglaries. . . . It sounds dizzy here, but in the book it was as real as a dime.” That’s the novel where Shiel, among other things, predicts the founding of Israel, one of his handful of works that see reprint time and again.
Later Hammett surfaces again in the Shiel saga with a blurb for the 1948 collection The Best Short Stories of M. P. Shiel, where he calls the author of Lord of the Sea “a magician.”
Steve Eng suspected, and I guess rightly, that it would have been the Shiel booster John Gawsworth who solicited Hammett for the blurb. If you like the concept of the bookman, Gawsworth is one of the most fascinating figures you’re going to encounter, constantly reviving the reputations of neglected writers, able to pay for a long slide into alcoholic ruin by going out to the penny bookstalls in front of London bookstores, picking up a few items, and taking them back later into the rare book rooms of the same stores and reaping his drinking money for the night. The only guy I personally have seen who is able to do the same thing would be Dennis McMillan — we were book browsing in North Beach circa 1983, went to the dollar table in Discovery Books and Dennis quickly plucked up two or three titles that were worth a hundred or so each.
I’ve always thought that Eng actually liked Gawsworth more than he did Shiel, and I wish he’d written more than he did about that flamboyant figure. Pretty much all of us realize that it was Gawsworth who took the concept of the Realm of Redonda from Shiel and ran with it — the idea that Shiel had been crowned king of a rocky island named Redonda rising from the Caribbean waves, that Gawsworth was his successor and able to appoint literary pals as Redondan royalty, including Dylan Thomas and Henry Miller and a host of others. If you’ve never heard of Redonda, it has a fascination for anyone interested in the world of books and authors, the London literary scene, endless pints in endless pubs. If The Beats had had something like Redonda going for them, they’d be that much more fascinating, too.
If intrigued, you can surf around the web and find all kinds of pieces about The Realm of Redonda, but as a starter why not try the comprehensive survey John D. Squires recently tossed on the net — it presents the whole story in one place clearly enough to get all the history and a lot of the charm. And if you have never heard of Redonda, you sort of need to, to be conversant in bookman lore.