Return to Ramble House Page

Return to Other Loons Page




by M.P. Shiel




 The Man Behind the Black Box


Richard L. Kellogg


Before gentle readers plunge into the intriguing mystery of The Black Box, they might enjoy having a little background of the British author who created this compelling and complex story. Matthew Phipps Shiel was a popular and prolific writer who published more than 30 books and various anthologies of essays and poems. Somewhat of a neglected author today, Shiel is most famous for his science-fiction tales of the macabre and the supernatural.

One of 10 children, Matthew Shiel was born in the West Indies on July 21, 1865. His mother was of mixed race and his Irish father labored as a shopkeeper and as a lay Methodist preacher. Shiel was taught by private tutors in his youth and later attended Harrison College in Barbados.

After moving to England in 1885, Shiel obtained a degree from King’s College in London and developed a high level of proficiency in seven languages. He also studied medicine at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital but soon lost interest in becoming a physician. Following brief periods of employment as a mathematics instructor and as an interpreter, he turned his focus to writing. Shiel produced a veritable torrent of novels, short stories, and serials within a few years.

Prince Zaleski was his first critical success and it contains three distinctive and memorable detective stories. This book was published in England and the United States by John Lane in 1895. The influences of other mystery writers such as Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe are evident throughout the volume.

The Prince Zaleski character appeared on the scene at the perfect time in the evolution of the modern detective story. In 1893, the British public was horrified to read that the great Sherlock Holmes had perished during a fateful encounter with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in 1891. This vacuum in detective fiction was partially filled by the dramatic debut of the eccentric Zaleski in 1895.

During his lifetime, The Yellow Danger was Shiel’s most successful book and it sold well through several editions. This novel centers on Oriental villainy and alerts the West to the threat of a future war with the hostile and aggressive Chinese people.

The literary reputation of Shiel today is based largely on a science-fiction novel titled The Purple Cloud. This book, published in 1901, relates the haunting story of a man who returns from an expedition to the North Pole only to find that he is the last man alive on earth. Due to some ecological calamity, a toxic purple gas has extinguished almost all human life.

It is significant that The Purple Cloud inspired a provocative MGM movie in 1959 which was titled The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. This dark and controversial film, based on Shiel’s theme of global environmental catastrophe, starred Harry Belafonte, Mel Ferrer, and Inger Stevens.

Toward the end of his writing career, Shield penned a number of plays and became involved in radical political movements. The most unfortunate aspect of Shiel’s life is that he became notorious for taking positions which were anti-Semitic, anti-Asian, and anti-Black. There is an irony in the anti-Black perspective in that Sheil’s own mother was a mulatto. Whatever the cause, blatant racism is apparent throughout his literary works. In addition, Shiel detested all organized religions and felt that scientific knowledge and research offered the only hope for the future of mankind.

Shiel faced financial difficulties and declining book sales during the final decade of his life. He avoided poverty when friends helped him obtain a government pension. After a lengthy and flamboyant life, Shiel died in Chichester at the age of 81 on February 17, 1947.

As for a literary legacy, it is expected that Matthew Phipps Shiel will be remembered largely for his mystery stories and for being a pioneer in developing the science-fiction genre in literature. There are dazzling flashes of brilliance and scholarship in almost all his books and they still provide some delightful reading for the current generation.



Author of Introduction: Richard L. Kellogg is a professor of psychology for the State University of New York in Alfred. He is the author of three books dealing with Sherlock Holmes and a frequent contributor to popular magazines and professional journals.


Return to Ramble House Page

Return to Other Loons Page