In 1897 a certain book is published about a strange, seductive, foreign creature that comes to London and wreaks havoc, and kidnaps women. A group of men (one of whom has already had a harrowing encounter with the creature in its lair) set out in pursuit. It is part detective novel, part horror story. But this book is not Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is Richard Marsh’s mostly-forgotten classic The Beetle. Dracula was also published in 1897, and Marsh’s book outsold it considerably. It’s strange that the book is so little known today.
A young politician named Paul Lessingham encounters a mysterious cult while traveling in Africa. He manages to escape it, but is pursued to London by a strange and inhuman creature. Along the way Lessingham’s fiancée Marjorie and her friend and would-be-suitor Sydney Atherton get caught up in this mess. As do an innocent clerk and a private detective. Eventually the Beetle kidnaps Marjorie.
One thing that makes The Beetle fascinating to me is that it encapsulates so perfectly everything one might be worried about in Britain in 1897. Imagine; there you are, trying to convince yourself that the British Empire is strong and mighty and invincible. But you’ve conquered parts of Africa (and especially Egypt) that are constant reminders of great empires eventually collapsing. They’re also reminders that the people you’ve conquered are capable of more than you give them credit for, and may even have knowledge that you do not have. It’s an uncomfortable thought.
Back home, things are equally fraught. Feminism has happened. Women are demanding the vote. Even gender isn’t that stable anymore. And in the middle of all this, Richard Marsh writes the character of the Beetle –able to shape-shift, androgynous, African, tanned and genuinely scary. It’s almost as if he purposefully set out to create the embodiment of everything his countrymen feared, wrapped up in one demented package.
And there’s Marjorie Linton. It’s difficult to be sure what the book makes of Marjorie. She’s a feminist, makes her own decisions, and campaigns for the right to vote. She has more personality than any of the other major characters. The inability of this little group of Victorian men to deal with her (Atherton’s moustache-quivering outrage is particularly choice) is occasionally played for laughs, but equally there’s an undercurrent of unease over where all this women’s liberation will end. Marjorie does not get a happy ending.
But you don’t need to be a Victorian to be affected by The Beetle. At its best moments (these generally involve large insects) it is genuinely menacing. It’s also marvelously structured, with its multi-person narrative, its flashbacks and its changing styles. It’s the sort of book that is so tempting to analyse that one often forgets that it is an incredibly entertaining and surprisingly accomplished book in its own right. It’s ludicrous and pulpy, but that could be equally said of books that are far better regarded. At the end of the day, The Beetle is enormously fun to read, and who’s going to turn that down?
And now here is a hint of great change. Great changes are to occur to this blog in the near future. I hope you'll all stick around.