by Richard Marsh
364 pages, Broadview Press
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
In 1897 a horror novel was published which gripped the British public and became a popular sensation. The lurid tale centred on a mysterious foreigner who arrives in London and takes a particular interest in a pretty young woman and her many suitors. The details of the stranger's wicked misdeeds thrilled the readers like nothing before. The narrative, told by the multiple main characters, was disorientating and helped to deepen the sense of mystery – only by reading each character's account was it possible to fully piece together the strange tale of supernatural powers and ancient evil.
“Dracula”? No, afraid not. Much as I adore Bram Stoker's classic tale, the novel I'm talking about is Richard Marsh's “The Beetle”. Released in the same year as Stoker's masterpiece, “The Beetle” initially enjoyed greater popularity, only becoming eclipsed by its contemporary over the course of time. And rightly so. Whereas “Dracula” is a fantastic example of sustained tension, fin de siecle decadence and blood sucking terror, “The Beetle” is a hackneyed, predictable melodrama that just plain sucks.
The novel tells the story of a mysterious man of Eastern appearance whose powers of mesmerism (yes, that old cliché) enable him to exert a sinister control over others. This dusky-skinned gentleman, who the politically-incorrect characters of the novel call “the Arab”, sets about using his supernatural powers to harm the career of aspiring Radical politician Paul Lessingham. Paul's fiancé, the irritatingly spunky Miss Marjorie Lindon, becomes the focus of the Arab's malevolent attentions. Fortunately for Marjorie, her would-be-suitor and long-time friend Sydney Atherton has an inkling of what is going on. When Marjorie is kidnapped by the dastardly fiend, Atherton and Lessingham must put aside their rivalry in order to save the woman they both love. The question remains, will their English pluck and rigid sense of right and wrong be enough against a man who can transform himself into (gasp) a beetle?
Whilst the story is readable enough to sustain one's attention to the end, it is so full of coincidence and random acts of good fortune that it is hard to take seriously. Marsh (the pseudonym of Richard Bernard Heldmann) appears to be one of those writers who will happily sacrifice realism and plausibility for the sake of a plot which moves so briskly the reader doesn't notice its gaping flaws and absence of traditional logic. Like actors in a bad play, the characters are rolled in to speak their lines, one after the other, often in the same chapter in order to advance the plot that little bit faster. Marsh doesn't do this once or twice but repeatedly, and as our ability to suspend disbelief is eroded by this artless plotting, so too are any feelings we might have held for the characters.
The villain of the piece, though suitably hideous and endowed with some eerie powers, is never really given the chance to develop. At least “Dracula” has those wonderful early chapters where we see Harker interacting with the Count and his sinister is fleshed out to some extent. The Arab of Marsh's novel is a baddie, plain and simple. He wants revenge and he belongs to a creepy cult. We never see any more of him than this and as a result, whilst we're repeatedly told he's terribly evil and a real dangerous guy, we never really feel this way about him. Whilst mesmerism and tales of the strange powers of the hypnotist were all the rage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to a modern audience it seems stale, rendering the villain's powers curiously inert. Worse yet, we're not even treated to a proper climax. Rather than reward his readers with a good old showdown between good and evil at the end of the story, Marsh simply dispatches the villain by means of a train crash which, though well rendered on paper, does not deliver a satisfying resolution to the tale.
It's not all bad. There are some great scenes where the characters are tormented by the Arab in his creepy beetle form. It's just a shame that Marsh lacks the ability as a writer to sustain this lurking terror throughout the novel. Likewise, when the details of the nightmarish rites of the beetle cult are finally revealed, there are some splendidly evocative descriptions of the temple and the frenzied worshippers but Marsh never seems to fully commit himself to bringing these horrors to life and so they remain somewhat half-baked. Of course, being a Victorian novel it would be too much to expect it to contain full-on depictions of crazed orgies, torture and sacrifice. However, part of the power of “Dracula” was Stoker's ability to imply such things. There is an undercurrent of sex and violence in “Dracula” that still has the power to shock. In comparison, “The Beetle” is positively flaccid.
Hereward L.M. Proops