Tuesday, September 30, 2008

THE BEETLE: A MYSTERY BY RICHARD MARSH was published in 1897; the same year as Bram Stoker's DRACULA. In fact, the two authors knew each other and there's a rather apocryphal story that both men had a wager as to which of them could write the more successful horror novel. Almost certainly this never happened; but in actuality THE BEETLE outsold DRACULA for a time. It is a tale of gothic horror featuring one of the most bizarre monsters ever seen. Richard Marsh (the grandfather of horror author Robert Aickman) imbues the book with creeping horror as well as a Victorian love triangle, the then-current rage of Mesmerism and echoes of Sherlock Holmes. Like DRACULA, THE BEETLE is also told from several points of view; it would probably suit Quentin Tarantino for his next film project.
The novel begins with the story of Robert Holt: a man so down on his luck that he's turned away from the poorhouse! You can't fall much farther than that, can you? Well, Holt comes across a backstreet with a house that looks to be empty. He climbs in the window to get out of the weather and promptly encounters a strange creature who mesmerizes him with his eyes. The creature alternately appears to be a strange-looking man lying in a bed as well as a shape-changing grotesque giant beetle who forces Holt to it's will. A scene where the lights go out and Holt can feel the spider-like legs of the Beetle crawling slowly up his leg is genuinely creepy. Possessing some grudge against crusading politician Paul Lessingham, the Beetle sends a naked Robert Holt out into the night to burglarize him and utter two threatening words to the famous man: "The Beetle!" The effect of those two words on the normally stoic gentleman reduces him into cringing putty --not once but several times during the course of the novel. After keeping the naked Holt dirty and starving, the Beetle eventually sees fit to have him collapse in the street seemingly dead. The wretch is taken indoors by Marjorie Lindon; who just happens to be Lessingham's fiancee.
This is only the beginning of the story. After Holt's tale is told, we next have an entire section told by a Sydney Atherton which interweaves into the Holt and Lessingham events. It seems that Atherton grew up with Marjorie Lindon and, while she considers him like a brother, he wants to marry her. Unfortunately for him, she loves Lessingham (this is where the Victorian romantic triangle comes in). Atherton has his own encounters with both the Beetle and Holt and, after his section of the book another section commences retelling the events from Marjorie Lindon's point of view. Like a Victorian -era VANTAGE POINT, the overall story is slowly revealed and crystallized through several different viewpoints. Whereas this device used in Stoker's DRACULA has never ceased to annoy me, here Marsh's use of it is actually very readable. My only problem with Marsh's writing, in fact, only occurs now and then with his slightly annoying use of overly deliberate argumentative dialogue. A minor quibble but it can grate on one's nerves after a while. Other than that, the novel is what I would definitely call a "page turner" and I seemed to rocket right through it.
My copy of the novel is, of course, from the wonderful (and highly affordable) Wordsworth Edition paperback. I should probably mention one rather startling passage which came as a complete surprise to me. In a paragraph I never expected to read in an 1897 novel, the heroine writes: "One result the experience had on me -- it wound me up. It had on me the revivifying effect of a cold douche." Yeah, I had to read it about 3 times to make sure I had read it right, too! And I can definitely say I never heard Mina Harker utter a similar phrase; no matter HOW much of the "new woman" SHE was supposed to be! Another aspect of the Beetle which makes the monster particularly bizarre is that is shapeshifts between male and female sexes quite routinely; giving an extra-added oddity to the monster. And unlike Stoker's DRACULA (which couched all sexuality in metaphor), Marsh's BEETLE features quite a lot of naked flesh: the aforementioned Holt running around unclothed for much of the novel as well as the nude female body displayed by the Beetle itself! Whereas the sexual "naughtiness" in Stoker's novel is subconsciously Freudian, Marsh's novel puts it right out there up front. For solid Victorian creepy fun, THE BEETLE by Richard Marsh fills the bill admirably.

4 comments:

Weaverman said...

er...I'd check that date!

Cheekies said...

Yeah, doddily dooh, you I thought I read Dracula way before 1987. I don't think I can trust you anymore and that makes me sad. Oh wait you got the date right towards the end of the story. Guess there is no such thing as datecheck, hmmm maybe we should invent that. But now I might have to add it to my must read list.

Fink Master Flash said...

ahh, the ol' mailstop from sales. i am surely gonna miss working with you!

Cerpts said...

And that goes double for me. Hopefully the massive coronary will hit this weekend and I won't have to think about it anymore.