As I’ve mentioned previously, Wordsworth Mystery & Supernatural is publishing an excellent collection of long out of print Victorian-era novels and short stories. I just finished reading one of them, a neglected novel of suspense and the supernatural, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle: A Mystery.
The novel was first published in 1897, the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and possesses a similar narrative style. The story is told in four parts, each representing the point of view of a different character. According to the Wordsworth Edition introduction, the novel was an immediate success, outselling Dracula in the first year of publication, and had gone through fifteen printings by 1913.
But what is the story? The Beetle is a tale of revenge, set in Victorian London. The devotee of an ancient Egyptian religion has tracked his/her/its target to his home in order to wreak vengeance years delayed. The devotee, seemingly not quite human, is a shapeshifter and hypnotist, and uses these powers to manipulate others and escape when necessary.
The tale is part horror story, part romance novel, part detective story, centered around five characters. The horror comes from The Beetle’s manipulation of the first character, Robert Holt (an innocent caught in the mess), and its terrorizing of the politician Paul Lessingham. The romance comes from the love triangle of Paul, fellow suitor Sydney Atherton, and their would-be beau Marjorie Lindon. The detective story comes from the help of private eye Augustus Champnell, bought in to assist the others.
I found the book to be slow in starting: the first section of the book involves the manipulation of Robert Holt, an unemployed man who wanders into an abandoned house to get out of the rain and it captured by The Beetle’s power. This first section is clearly intended to build an aura of mystery about the situation, but it seems to answer too few questions to justify its length.
However, after this section the action picks up and rarely slackens, except for several breaks when a new narrator takes the reins of the tale. By the last section, I was unable to put the book down, and actually finished it on a taxi ride from the airport.
The most effective horror in the tale comes from descriptions of the secret cult in Egypt, and their forbidden rituals. Though certainly not historically accurate, the depictions are surprisingly graphic for a popular novel published in the late 1800s!
It is interesting to note that Wikipedia’s entry on Marsh refers to the story as a xenophobic one, though that is not the impression I got in the reading. Marsh never seems to imply that all middle-easterners are evil, or dangerous: the cult is described as one which is hidden and feared by the locals. Characters who encounter The Beetle on the street are not put off by his ethnicity as much as his vividly described unusual hideousness.
The use of hypnosis by the story’s villain is not surprising, as such techniques were quite in vogue at the time and had finally reached the level where meetings such as The First International Congress for Experimental and Therapeutic Hypnotism (1889) in Paris were being organized.
It is interesting that the novel, once so popular, did not stand the test of time as well as Stoker’s Dracula. It apparently went out of print in the 1960s and did not reappear until the turn of the millenium. Having read the book, I noted a possible contributing factor: one of the heroes, Sydney Atherton, is an inventor, and during the course of the novel he is working on his latest invention,
“You’ll notice the safe is strongly made — it’s air-tight, fire-proof, the outer casing is of triple-plated drill-proof steel — the contents are valuable — to me! — and devilish dangerous — I’d pity the thief who, in his innocent ignorance, broke in to steal. Look inside — you see it’s full of balls — glass balls, each in its own little separate nest; light as feathers; transparent — you can see right through them. Here are a couple, like tiny pills. They contain neither dynamite, nor cordite, nor anything of the kind, yet, given a fair field and no favour, they’ll work more mischief than all the explosives man has fashioned. Take hold of one — you say your heart is broken! — squeeze this under your nose — it wants but a gentle pressure — and in less time than no time you’ll be in the land where they say there are no broken hearts.”
Yes, one of the heroes of the story is developing chemical weapons. It would not surprise me if, after World War I and the horrors of chemical warfare therein, the public was less inclined to root for a character that could take such a cavalier attitude about such deadly tactics.
Nevertheless, The Beetle is a classic and historical work of weird fiction. Fans who enjoy a horror story that contains cat-and-mouse maneuvering will find it worth their time.
I can recommend the Wordsworth Edition, but for the cash-strapped, it is also available on Project Gutenberg.