I’ve discussed the works of Richard Marsh (1857-1915) quite often on this blog; he was a British-born author of horror and thrillers, and was stunningly successful at it in his time. His most famous novel was his breakout supernatural story The Beetle (1897), which even surpassed Dracula at the time in popularity! I have yet to read a weird story by Marsh that I haven’t enjoyed immensely.
Marsh’s works disappeared from the public eye for half a century, but have been reappearing in print thanks to the valiant efforts of Valancourt Books. Recently they released one of his books that is quite different from the others, A Second Coming (1900):
The cover, a reproduction of the original, pretty much sums up the plot: Christ has finally returned to Earth, and he has come amongst the citizens of post-Victorian London. The book is a departure from Marsh’s other works, in that it is an attempt at “serious” literature, albeit with an undeniably “weird” element remaining. I found it surprisingly compelling, in spite of my lack of connection to organized religion — or perhaps because of it.
The story begins without any ambiguity:
He stood at the corner of the table with his hat and overcoat on, just as he had rushed into the room
‘Christ has come again!’
The servants were serving the entrées. Their breeding failed them. They stopped to stare at Chisholm. The guests stared too, those at the end leaning over the board to see him better. He looked like a man newly startled out of dreaming, blinking at the lights and glittering table array. His hat was a little on one side of his head. He was hot and short of breath, as if he had been running. They regarded him as a little bewildered, while he, on his part, looked back at them as if they were the creatures of a dream.
The first third of the book, The Tales Which Were Told, shares a variety of essentially unconnected anecdotes about The Lord’s reappearance, in which he rights wrongs, heals the sick and injured and imparts wisdom. In the second third, The Tumult Which Arose, the people become aware of the Lord’s presence and take pains to welcome him. As one might expect in a story about Christ, the final third of the book, The Passion of the People, describes what happens when the Lord doesn’t match, or abide by, the people’s preconceived notions.
The story is not really a religious one, however; rather, it seems to me to be a commentary on the morality, lifestyles, and politics of the people of London. Though one would expect that most Londoners circa 1900 considered themselves Christians, in Marsh’s London most of them do not even have the capability to recognize their savior.
My favorite scene in this regard takes place in a church. In the midst of a sermon on the second coming, a mysterious stranger steps forward to join the preacher on stage. What follows is a scene that I felt had extreme relevance today:
When the Stranger had gained the platform, He turned towards the people, asking:
‘Who is there here that knows Me? Is there one?’ There was not one that answered. He turned to the preacher. ’Look at Me well. Do you not know Me?’
For once in a way Philip Evans seemed uncomfortable and ill at ease and abashed.
‘How shall I know you, since you are to me a stranger?’
‘And yet you have looked for My coming?’
‘Your coming? Who are you?’
‘Look at Me well. Is there nothing by which you may know Me?’
‘I may have seen you before; but, if so, I have certainly forgotten it, which is the more strange, since your face is an unusual one.’
I guess the flickering remnants of the Christian in me responded to these tales, because I found them surprisingly moving. The scene is strikingly similar in setup to Mark Twain’s famous poem The War Prayer, which was likely written somewhere around 1905.
Christ himself in Marsh’s novel is somewhat a tabula rasa; he says very little of what he expects of people, but only points out that they have not themselves asked what He expects. This seems to be what Marsh was trying to point out; regardless of one’s specific religious convictions, people spend far too much time attempting to make their faith fit their views. We meet many people throughout the course of the novel, from the highest and lowest classes of society; not surprisingly, the wealthy and powerful are often found terribly wanting.
Pointing out people’s religious hypocrisy was apparently not too popular; Marsh’s book was savaged in the press when it came out. A review quoted on the back of the Valancourt edition (from The Critic, July 1900) states,
Richard Marsh, author of A Second Coming, is the author also of ‘The Beetle’ and ‘The Crime and the Criminal.’ This, therefore, is his third coming. If one wishes to read one of his books, let it be ‘The Crime’ or ‘The Beetle.’ It may be better than ‘A Second Coming.’ It cannot easily be worse.
This criticism is rather unfair, however. Personally, I found it a fascinating tale which gives an interesting perspective on the life and views of late Victorian-era Londoners. It is also undeniably a weird tale; though Marsh may have intended this book to be “above” his previous works, it still shows its roots in its wonderful imaginativeness.