The Beetle by Richard Marsh
Introduced by David Hughes, Hay Cinema Bookshop
Peruse any late nineteenth century popular periodical and chances are you will alight upon a long or short tale by Richard Marsh. Prolific as his output was, touching upon any number of literary themes, he managed to outsell Stoker’s Dracula at one point with The Beetle. Popular fiction that rattled through the pages, Marsh has a number of facets that I found weighted in his favour. Many of his fictions are imbued with humour, wry and whimsy, occasionally droll. Yet where the creepy or strange were called for, he mustered some telling characters and uniquely hideous threats. Women also figured strongly, with many a figure being firm of will, independently sure-footed, as well as being terrorised as much as their male counterparts.
Using various narrative voices & styles, The Beetle may be sold as a flavour of Wilkie Collins, Bram Stoker and, because of Richard Marsh’s sense of humour, even Dickens. But he is none of these. Nor is he a mere amalgam of styles.
As to this particular tale, the style of Marsh is clarity, punch & lulling into a sense of uncertainty. In short, ideal for serialisation. Yet clearly from his vocabulary & diction, he matched this pertinent method with the control of his strong imagination, his diverse themes never get away from him. The hand of a craftsman is at work, if i dare be so bold, though he didn’t have to be so controlled & precise in his quality to sell to some of the periodicals of the time. Many of these works were looked down upon as merely popular of mass appeal. Perhaps why he is only now being recognised as a major if diffuse talent with literary merit.
However, do not enter into the themes herein if thou art faint of heart! A shapeshifter, a sordid harem of worshippers of Goddess Isis, white-slavery, threat to woman & man alike, the sprawl of slums in a metropolis, murder by neglect, moral ambiguity & the insidious rupturing of ethical society, racial disharmony, somnambulism, persistent threat to body & soul. All quietly, solidly told with a faint whiff of the aroma of W.F. Harvey or E.F. Benson to some of the more horrific elements. Patience & an even temperament may be the prerequisite of the reader, lest they be lulled by The Beetle…