The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Beetle (1897)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Beetle was written by “Richard Marsh.” “Richard Marsh” was the pseudonym of Richard Bernard Heldmann (1857-1915), a prolific English writer and the grandfather of noted horror author Robert Aickman. Heldmann was a journalist and wrote on a wide range of subjects, from horror novels to a Second Coming novel to a series of mystery short stories about the lip-reading female detective Judith Lee. But what he is likely to be remembered for is The Beetle, which is seen as a minor classic of late-Victorian horror by the literati and horror cognoscenti.
The Beetle is about four characters: The Beetle, Sidney Atherton, Paul Lessingham, and Marjorie Lindon. Sidney is a successful young chemist and inventor who is in love with Marjorie. Marjorie, the daughter of a wealthy magnate, has been Sidney’s friend from childhood, but she does not love him and receives the announcement of his love for her rather too lightly and callously. She is in love with Paul, a young up-and-coming statesman and Radical Member of Parliament. Paul is in love with her, and they are engaged to be married, despite the objection of Marjorie’s choleric, Colonel Blimpish father. But Paul has a secret from his past, and The Beetle is about how it returns to haunt him.
In his youth Paul traveled to Egypt, and foolishly decided to wander through the native section of Cairo. He was drawn to a café by the hypnotic singing and playing of a young woman. While listening to her and speaking with her he was either hypnotized or drugged (it is unclear which) and taken to an underground temple of Isis. There he was kept for a space of months as the sex toy (implied) of the young woman, who is a priestess of Isis. During that time he remained drugged or hypnotized and was helpless to stop the “orgies of nameless horrors” which he saw. These horrors included human sacrifices, usually of Englishwoman after they had been subjected “to every variety of outrage of which even the minds of demons could conceive.”1 After one such sacrifice the woman’s hold over Paul slipped, and he strangled her and escaped. During the struggle she turned into a monstrous beetle, “a huge, writhing creation of some wild nightmare.”2 (As is later revealed, members of the Children of Isis sect can turn into beetles after they die).
Twenty years later, Paul is forced to deal with the consequences of his time in Egypt, for the woman he strangled comes to England and attempts to exact revenge on him. The woman, the titular Beetle, hypnotizes a homeless man and forces him to steal some of Paul’s letters to Marjorie. After various plot complications the Beetle kidnaps Marjorie, intending to take her back to Egypt, and a chase ensues, with Sidney and Paul in pursuit. After more plot complications the train carrying the Beetle and the mesmerized Marjorie crashes, killing the Beetle and injuring Marjorie. She recovers and marries Paul. Sidney marries a girl who loves him, and the temple of the Children of Isis in Egypt is found and destroyed.
There is an apocryphal anecdote that Marsh and Bram Stoker wagered each other that they would write a supernatural novel within a certain amount of time, and that Stoker took several years to produce Dracula and Marsh turned out The Beetle in the space of a few weeks. While amusing, this story is untrue: “there are in fact no known links between Marsh and Stoker.”3 There are similarities between The Beetle and Dracula, to be sure, and outside observers, if they had noticed these similarities and the short space of time between the works’ publications—Dracula was published in July, 1897, and The Beetle in September of that year—would have compared the two and reached the conclusion that The Beetle would be the more successful of the two. The Beetle quickly became enormously popular, undergoing fifteen reprintings in sixteen years and becoming arguably the most popular horror novel of the 1890s, while Dracula became iconic only after Stoker’s death in 1912 and with the success of the 1922 horror film Nosferatu. But, of course, Dracula ultimately became far more successful than The Beetle, being the most-read horror novel of all time, while The Beetle is no more than an obscurity to most readers now.
The Beetle’s current state is understandable, for it is an uneven work. The opening chapters are compelling reading and some of the most disquieting horror of the nineteenth century. Marsh describes how Thomas Holt, the homeless man, is subjected to the Beetle’s mind control and forced to burgle Paul’s office. Told in the first person, the scenes have a real sense of helpless terror and fear of a nameless, evil unknown, and the reader can’t help but empathize with poor Holt. Moreover, Marsh does not content himself with writing scenes of atmospheric evil but goes beyond that to create scenes which are, for their time period, remarkably transgressive. Holt first encounters the Beetle when he breaks into her house to get out of the rain. The Beetle uses her hypnosis to take complete control of Holt’s body and paralyze him. The Beetle changes into one of her alternate forms, a large beetle perhaps a foot long, and crawls over Holt, up his legs, over his loins, across his chest and then on to his face, where it probes his chin and mouth, all of which are well described in Holt’s impressionistic, first-person narrative. The Beetle changes back into her default shape, that of a hideously ugly androgyne, who Holt takes to be a man. The Beetle forces Holt to strip naked while she watches, smiles “a satyr’s smile,”4 and compliments the whiteness of Holt’s skin. A little time later the Beetle fingers and prods Holt’s paralyzed body, “as if I had been some beast ready for the butcher’s stall,”5 touches every part of his face, and then kisses him. Throughout this scene, Holt and the reader believe that the Beetle is a man. The sexual transgression of these scenes, something which few of Marsh’s contemporaries could or would have written, are notable and nicely disquieting.
But Marsh then switches the narration to Atherton and then Marjorie, and the momentum and atmosphere of the Holt chapters disappears and is replaced by a whopping great load of dialogue. In the middle sections of The Beetle Marsh is prolix, and while always readable the later sections are only partially successful in recapturing the novel’s early atmosphere of fear and terror. Worse still is the dialogue and characterization of Marjorie, Paul, and Sidney. Marsh’s dialogue is realistic and readable, and his characterization is fine, but all three characters are unsympathetic, aggressively so in the case of Marjorie, whose treatment of Sidney is cruel and who is generally unlikable. Sidney is filled with jealousy of Paul and is a petty, small man, and Paul is a glib, dishonest prig. All three are unpleasantly self-righteous, and the reader will be excused for rooting for the Beetle.
As might be expected, given the novel’s premise, Marsh’s treatment of the Egyptians and of those of “negro blood”6 is more than a little racist. The ugliness is rather brief, however, and appears in passing rather than as something Marsh dwells upon.
As David Stuart Davies notes, the Beetle is an extraordinary accomplishment on Marsh’s part:
Unlike Stoker, who in creating Count Dracula, took a recognized fiend from myth and legend, the blood-sucking vampire, as the focus of fear and horror in his book, Marsh created his own monster, one which is not quite human and not quite insect. As Champnel observes, it is “a creature born of neither God nor man.” Indeed, the actual nature of the Beetle is never quite explained, including its sexuality, thus increasing the reader’s sense of fear and apprehension. The power the creature has to change shape, to control the will with its Mesmeric powers can, one supposes, be another instance of Marsh suggesting how, as the end of the nineteenth century approaches, with both science and the supernatural being viewed in a highly ambivalent light, nothing can be taken at face value; but more importantly from a narrative point of view it also provides the reader with no certainties. We never know when the foul creature will materialize or in what form.7
More broadly, as Julian Wolfreys writes,
More than merely a figure, the Beetle in its protean transformability that worries at the very definitions of gender and sexuality is, and must be read as, effectively, a trope that resists mastery or control. Moving through the city and a few of its inhabitants’ lives and imaginations, it inscribes a countersignature to London, thereby intimating those uncontrollable forces that are the city’s own. The Beetle does not merely rewrite the city. Neither does he / she / it simply make urban space complicit in the staging of transgressive acts. In Marsh’s imaginatively constructed night world, London is locus and agent, as well as provisional identity for monstrous otherness.8
Those interested in excellent, discomforting horror should read the first four chapters of The Beetle. Those interested in watching potential be wasted should continue beyond that.
Print: Richard Marsh, The Beetle. Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth, 2007.
For Further Research
David Stuart Davies, “Introduction,” i-xii, in Richard Marsh, The Beetle. Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth, 2007.
Julian Wolfreys, “The Hieroglyphic Other: The Beetle, London and the Anxieties of Late Imperial England,” in Julian Wolfreys, ed., Writing London (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
1 Richard Marsh, The Beetle (New York: Putnam, 1917), 240.
2 Marsh, The Beetle, 242.
3 Lisa Hopkins, Bram Stoker: A Literary Life (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 52.
4 Marsh, The Beetle, 19.
5 Marsh, The Beetle, 21.
6 Marsh, The Beetle, 119.
7 David Stuart Davies, “Introduction,” xi, in Richard Marsh, The Beetle (Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth, 2007).
8 Julian Wolfreys, “The Hieroglyphic Other: The Beetle, London and the Anxieties of Late Imperial England,” in Julian Wolfreys, Writing London (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 16.