Paperback, 400 pages
Expected publication: May 1st 2020 by Poisoned Pen Press (first published 1897)
Original Title: The Beetle
ISBN: 1492699713 (ISBN13: 9781492699712)
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What’s it about?
A creature that seems to have crawled out of our worst nightmares…
Meet Paul Lessingham: an up-and-coming statesman, known for his unflappable calm, winning the respect of his peers and the admiration of the people with his powerful convictions and finely crafted speeches in Parliament. A man at the height of his powers, politically and personally, recently engaged to a beautiful young woman who adores him. A man on top of the world—reduced to a cowering, sniveling heap of abject terror at the utterance of two words: “The BEETLE!”
Set in London at the end of the nineteenth century, this blood-chilling tale is told from the viewpoints of four characters who have the distinct misfortune of stumbling into a diabolical scheme of revenge, with a scorned would-be lover—a strange, seemingly magical creature—at its core. Snubbed marriage proposals, secret engagements, deadly chemical experiments, and mysterious visitors all weave their hypnotic spell upon the reader, culminating in a desperate hunt for an abducted young woman whose life, it seems, is the price to be paid for her lover’s indiscretion some twenty years prior.
Though published the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle was far more popular in its day. This curated edition, based on the original 1897 publication by Skeffington and Sons, London, will horrify and delight the modern reader with its timeless tale of jealousy and its many hideous faces—as relevant today as it was over 100 years ago.
Most of us have heard of Dracula, published in the same year as The Beetle, and I think one possible reason for one having endured and become entrenched in our culture and the other not so much, is that Dracula is ostensibly a more straightforward story.
The Beetle is a tangling intrigue, from start to finish, and is a very rewarding read if you stick with it. It begins in an almost Dickensian way, with a man who is very much down on his luck, making his way around some lonely London streets in a deluge, searching for the workhouse. We get the impression that this chap is not the typical workhouse lot, but he is desperate. On turning one particular corner, he notices a large house, dark and lonely, with an open downstairs window. He decides to climb through to seek shelter – after all, the house seems empty….
Blimey, I bet he wished he hadn’t. He finds there, in that house, a creature hell bent on revenge on the politician Paul Lessingham, and who it seems, must have an agent to act on its behalf. Poor Robert Holt.
“I became, on a sudden, aware, that something was with me in the room. There was nothing, ostensibly, to lead me to such a conviction; it may be that my faculties were unnaturally keen; but, all at once, I knew that there was something there. What was more, I had a horrible persuasion that, though unseeing, I was seen; that my every movement was being watched.”
The Beetle is an insidious, sinister and malevolent story, with links to mesmerism, shapeshifting and Egyptian lore. It is told from four viewpoints, the first three describing the same skin-crawling events from their own perspective and adding extra detail each time. I found some parts of it a little slow and repetitive, but it is very much worth completing.
Marjorie Linden is a very progressive character, often confidently rejecting what is expected of her as a woman from a prominent family. She deals with the erratic, jealous courting behaviour of the scientist Sydney Atherton as though she is dealing with a silly child of whom she is fond, and her character gave me joy, particularly in the dealings with her father. Her rationality, even with her fear of beetles and her ordeal, stands in stark contrast to some of the fragile masculinity in this novel, and it’s a standout contrast to the perception of the time. Which does seem rather strange after 60 years with Queen Victoria as regent. The first three accounts are essentially horror stories, with Sydney Atherton’s being decidedly odd, but in the final quarter we are transported to a Sherlockian style chase to the conclusion.
If you choose to read ‘The Beetle’ in this stunning new edition, I hope you feel as I do; being glad that you’ve found something perhaps you hadn’t heard of before from the gothic period in English literature, and feeling just that little bit richer for having done so.
I received a digital ARC of ‘The Beetle’ via Netgalley, in exchange for honest feedback on my reader experience.
About the author:
Richard Marsh (October 12, 1857–August 9, 1915) was the pseudonym of the British author born Richard Bernard Heldmann. He is best known for his supernatural thriller The Beetle: A Mystery, which was published in the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and was initially even more popular. The Beetle remained in print until 1960, and was subsequently resurrected in 2004 and 2007. Heldman was educated at Eton and Oxford University. He began to publish short stories, mostly adventure tales, as “Bernard Heldmann,” before adopting the name “Richard Marsh” in 1893. Several of the prolific Marsh’s novels were published posthumously.