Richard Marsh was a prolific writer of horror, suspense and mystery stories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’ve previously blogged about his most famous work, The Beetle: A Mystery, an 1897 horror tale that was so popular that it outsold its contemporary Dracula for some time. The other night I finished reading another of Marsh’s works, his 1901 novel The Joss: A Reversion. The facsimile of the original cover is below:
I have to say that I enjoyed The Joss even more than The Beetle! I give a brief description of the tale below the fold…
Like its predecessor, The Joss is broken into four parts, each of which is told from the point of view of a different character in the story. Mary Blyth, a hard-working Londoner, begins the narration, describing an extremely bad day which precipitates all the later horrors. The same day that she gets unfairly fired from her place of work, a number of mysterious strangers cross her path, each of whom seems to know her and has a unhealthy interest. Several of these strangers end up in an altercation with each other, and Mary and her friends end up fleeing, possibly for their lives.
The next day, Mary is approached by a solicitor, who informs her that a distant uncle has died, leaving her a substantial fortune and a house to live in. Unfortunately, the fortune comes with conditions, among them: she may not allow any men into the house, ever, may only take a single woman as a companion to stay with her, and she must always be inside the house between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. every night!
The mystery Marsh sets up here is a compelling one. Unlike The Beetle, I found the story immediately engaging: there are numerous parties interested in Mary and competing for her attention, some of whom are willing to take violent action. Furthermore, there is a sinister, crudely-shaped idol that is passed to Mary early in the story and continues to appear inexplicably as the tale progresses (it reminded me of this song).
In The Beetle, the threat comes from Egypt; in The Joss, the threat comes from the Far East. It is never clearly stated which country in particular is involved, though references are made to sailing in the Gulf of Tonkin, which suggests Vietnam, Cambodia, or one of the islands in the region. I’m not entirely sure whether Marsh himself had a clear idea, because his descriptions sound more like stereotypical depictions of Polynesian tribes and their tikis. The region may have been on the mind of Marsh and the public as, according to Wikipedia, several of the French Polynesian islands appealed unsuccessfully for British protection in the late 1800s. In any case, I enjoy the story more if I imagine the creepy idol of the story to be a ‘taboo!’ tiki!
The book has its share of chilling moments. The house which Mary Blyth inherits is an old, abandoned ruin, infested with rats and vermin and retrofitted with solid steel doors and shutters. The descriptions of their first night there, and their ill-advised trip out after 9:00, are quite effective. Later in the book are some scenes of genuine cringe-inducing horror, including a depiction of human sacrifice, which is astounding considering the era in which the book was written!
I also found the ending of The Joss to be more satisfying than the ending of The Beetle, the latter of which involves a bit of deux ex machina. The Joss, in contrast, is a story that involves a horrifying, shocking secret, and it is well worth the read to find out what it is.
The Joss is a surprisingly effective, creepy, shocking, turn-of-the-century horror novel that I would recommend to anyone interested in the genre. (Note: It probably wasn’t as popular as The Beetle because nobody knew what the heck a ‘Joss’ is!)
I had never heard of Richard Marsh until I stumbled upon your blog. How does his work compare with H.P. Lovecraft? I’ll definitely look for The Joss–it sounds like frightenly good fun!
ahouseofhorror: Thanks for the comment! Marsh’s work is definitely not as poetic as Lovecraft’s, and the horror Marsh deals with is typically more subtle, even mundane at times.
When he’s on, though, he’s on: his descriptions of ancient and sinister religious rites are wonderful, and both The Beetle and The Joss had me cringing at times.
Marsh’s real strength is as a mystery writer, and one of the compelling aspects of his work is trying to figure out exactly what the heck is going on!
I read The Joss thanks to you – and enjoyed it. I’m reading The Beetle now, and liking it. Thanks so much!
Ridger: Glad you liked it! Let me know what you think about The Beetle.