The Beetle by Richard Marsh

The Beetle is the best known work of London-born novelist Richard Marsh. This remarkable horror novel was published in 1897, the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the first years of publication The Beetle outsold Dracula by six times over.

I find it easy to understand why late Victorian readers loved this somewhat gothic tale set in London. Richard Marsh has a wonderful gift for dialogue. So much so that I could almost hear the characters speaking in the old time accents of 1930s and 40s British cinema.

Victorian readers must’ve enjoyed the plot too. It’s very dramatic. The story hinges around a visitor from Egypt who is determined to destroy Paul Lessingham, a well known British politician.

Marsh makes good use of multiple narrators. Each character has a different view of Lessingham. For much of the book the reader can never be sure whether he’s a hero or a villain. This mix of character viewpoints, plus the lovely dialogue, gives The Beetle a travel-back-in-time realness. In other words, it’s a great read if you enjoy British social history.

Inventor Sydney Atherton is one of the most intriguing of the narrators. He’s in love with another narrator, Miss Majorie Lindon. She’s agreed to marry Lessingham. Atherton wonders if the Egyptian provides a chance to break the couple up. The visitor is hell bent on revenge. So Atherton asks, what terrible thing did Lessingham do?

I found Atherton as sinister as the visitor, perhaps more so. For one thing he’s an inventor of poison gas who proposes to test it in the Amazon. He almost kills another character and does kill a cat (because it might be Lessingham’s). Atherton is even sought out by the visitor as a potential ally.

Of course, late 19th-century attitudes were often different to ours. What did Marsh want readers to feel about Atherton’s work with poison gas? Would they have seen it as patriotic? Dangerous but honourable work in defence of the realm?

Or to put it another way, was Atherton intended to be part of the story’s horror or not? I would love to know. For me, Sydney Atherton is part of the horror.

Before you seek out The Beetle I should warn you that aspects of this novel have dated badly. If Richard Marsh were writing today he would probably be cancelled!

The dated parts of the story mostly centre around the visitor from Egypt. If The Beetle were made into a Netflix drama, the writers would do well to turn the visitor into a British character and to replace Marsh’s Cult of the Children of Isis with some kind of Cult of Something From British Folklore. This would stop The Beetle from being an “English people vs the dastardly Foreigner” story.

I would also advise the writers to change the visitor’s gender identity. Marsh makes too big a thing of how nobody is sure whether the visitor is male or female. Back in 1897 Marsh would’ve done this to underline the character’s supernatural identity. No sensitive writer would do that today. In 2021 we understand that it’s transphobic to use gender as a prop in a horror story in this way.

Last but not least, Marsh’s descriptions of the Cult’s sacrifice of young women come across as prurient. It’s not entertaining, it’s quite horrible.

It’s no shocker that The Beetle has dated in places. It was written in a different time and culture. I have emphasised my criticisms so that you can avoid the book if you want to do so.

I think that for admirers of clever writing The Beetle is a great lesson in how to write dialogue, how to structure a narrative and how to use narrators to create tension.

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