Like many people, I practice seasonal reading. Jane Austen’s comic novels are just right for late spring and early summer; Sherlock Holmes’s adventures should be enjoyed in October or November; and leisurely 19th-century fiction — particularly with a gothicky flavor — seems ideal for the bleak, monotone days of January and February. Not even Valentine’s Day does much to brighten February.
So what better way to spend an evening or two this month than with the best-selling horror novel of the 1890s, a book that appeared in the same year as “Dracula” — 1897 — and that was, for a long while, even more popular than the immortal vampire classic? Even now “The Beetle,” by Richard Marsh (1857-1915), remains gripping, transgressive and deeply disturbing.
This occult “mystery” is divided into four sections, each told from the viewpoint of a different character. By this Wilkie Collinsish means, Marsh is able to illuminate the events of a few days from several perspectives, to enlarge the social scope of the action and, most of all, to ratchet up the suspense. Two sections end with the narrator fainting dead away. And with good reason, I might add.
“The Beetle” opens with “The Surprising Narration of Robert Holt.” We are immediately plunged into the world of London’s underclass as Holt — a onetime clerk let go after corporate downsizing — is refused a bed in a homeless shelter. Starving, soaked through by the steady drizzle, he wanders into an eerie, rundown section of London. “In the darkness and the rain, the locality which I was entering appeared unfinished. I seemed to be leaving civilization behind me. . . . Houses were few and far between. Those which I did encounter, seemed, in the imperfect light, amid the general desolation, to be cottages which were crumbling to decay.”
As he trudges along, Holt notices that one house has its window partly open. Desperate for food and rest, he pushes up the sash and climbs inside. Almost immediately, he begins to feel aware of, then afraid of, something in the darkness. Even more strangely, he finds himself rooted to the spot, unable to move. Slowly, just above floor level, two specks of light — eyes — begin to move noiselessly toward him. “What it was I could not tell — it mounted me. . . . It pressed lightly against my clothing with what might, for all the world, have been spider’s legs. There was an amazing host of them — I felt the pressure of each separate one. They embraced me softly, stickily, as if the creature glued and unglued them, each time it moved.” Before long, the thing ascends to Holt’s groin, then his chest, and finally it touches his lips, while covering his face with its “huge, slimy evil-smelling body.”
Nightmarish as this may be, it is only the beginning. When the light suddenly flicks on, the crawling creature is gone, and Holt finds before him, lying under a mound of rugs, an androgynous figure, sallow, hairless and wrinkled, with a beak-like nose and blubbery lips. A man? A woman? Holt isn’t sure. But one thing is certain: Its huge eyes seem to peer into his soul, to hold him “enchained, helpless, spell-bound.” In fact, Holt finds himself utterly in its power and immediately obeys when commanded to strip naked.
Later, this repugnant being — is it even human? — finally speaks in halting sing-song and with eerie tenderness about a handsome young politician named Paul Lessingham:
“He is tall — his skin is white; he is strong — do I not know that he is strong — how strong! — oh yes! Is there a better thing than to be his wife? His well-beloved? The light of his eyes? Is there for a woman a happier chance? Oh, no, not one! His wife! — Paul Lessingham!”
At this point the now robotic Holt is given his orders and, against his will, proceeds to carry them out.
In the thriller’s second section, Marsh shifts to a scene of London high life. At a ball, the young inventor Sydney Atherton asks Marjorie Lindon to marry him and is refused. She explains that she and Paul Lessingham are in love, even though her conservative father disapproves of the young reformer. No matter. Miss Lindon is clearly a feisty, independent New Woman. In fact, before the uncanny turns to actual physical menace, “The Beetle” sometimes reads like a light romantic novel, with brittle comic banter that is dated but not unbearable.
Once back in his lab, Atherton returns to his researches on a weapon of mass destruction, a deadly poison gas, no less. While stewing over Marjorie’s rebuff, he is surprised by an unannounced visitor wearing a burnoose, who suggests that the two “experiment” together on Paul Lessingham. What? asks Atherton. Who are you? The stranger with piercing eyes answers, “I am of the children of Isis.”
Meanwhile, we learn that Lessingham is, for all his outward success, a haunted man. There is something in his past about which he refuses to speak. Yet two words, “The Beetle,” are enough to reduce this noble crusader for social justice into quivering, frightened jelly. Moreover, as becomes increasingly clear, deadly forces are massing against him — and, even more dreadfully — against Marjorie Lindon, the woman he loves. The novel’s third section is told from her viewpoint and the last from that of a shrewd Sherlockian “confidential agent.”
While “The Beetle” can be prolix and some of its plot elements corny, it is nevertheless a genuine “creepy-crawly,” as one contemporary review dubbed it. Like “Dracula,” Marsh’s horror classic undermines nearly all traditional boundaries, dissolving even the barriers between man and woman, human and insect, the living and the dead. As Minna Vuohelainen concludes in her superb introduction to this Valancourt edition, the overall theme of the novel is just “this constant, traumatic shifting of class, social, gendered, sexual, ethnic and national identities.” Most noticeably, Richard Marsh daringly passes beyond the merely titillating to the mentally and physically traumatizing. At least three characters suffer sexual violation. In “The Beetle,” no one escapes undamaged, much remains undecidable, and the whole is supercharged throughout with the fascination of the abomination.
If you decide to give Marsh’s masterpiece a try, seek out either this splendid Valancourt edition or Julian Wolfrey’s Broadview edition. Both contain scholarly introductions, notes and appendices packed with useful information about late Victorian beliefs concerning sexuality, mesmerism, immigration, Egypt and the Orient, and the polyglot London underclass.
In his high-stepping youth, Richard Marsh passed phony checks to maintain a lavish lifestyle andthen served 18 months at hard labor. Nonetheless, he remade himself into one of the most prolific and versatile writers of his time. While short-story collections such as “Curios” and “The Seen and the Unseen” and novels such as “The Goddess: A Demon” and “The Joss: A Reversion”— all available from Valancourt — remain too little known even now, “The Beetle” has emerged as a key text in the mapping of fin-de-siècle cultural anxieties and the development of “urban Gothic.” Read it and shiver.
Dirda reviews for Book World every Thursday.
By Richard Marsh
Edited by Minna Vuohelainen
Valancourt. 371 pp.