Richard Marsh’s Gothic novel The Beetle first appeared in 1897, the same year as Dracula. Originally published in serialization as The Peril of Paul Lessingham: The Story of a Haunted Man in the magazine Answers from March 13 to June 15, that autumn it was published in book form with a new title, The Beetle: A Mystery. The title change is apt since it is more concise and focuses on the chief horror of the story. However, the original title is significant because it identifies Paul Lessingham as the main character. Lessingham does not occupy a major chunk of the narrative, yet he is in some sense responsible for the horrible events that unfold.
The Beetle is about an androgynous human-like creature who shape-shifts into a beetle and may have sources in Ancient Egypt, scarabs, and the cult of Isis.
Before discussing the plot and the novel’s Gothic elements, it’s worth noting that few literary critics have given The Beetle much attention, even though the novel outsold Dracula upon its initial publication. It was immensely popular and was never out of print until 1960. It even inspired a 1919 silent film and a 1928 stage play. As late as 1997, a radio play of it was produced. However, only in recent years have literary critics started to take notice of it.
This article will explore The Beetle’s Gothic elements, suggest why it fails beside greater Gothic novels like Dracula, and why it deserves a place of significance in the history of its genre, although it more draws upon its Gothic predecessors than inspired later Gothic works.
The novel is divided into four books, each told by a different character. Each section is a document or report compiled by Champnell, the inspector in the case. These different narrative voices and the idea of documents compiling a novel suggest an influence of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. Notably, Stoker would use a similar format in Dracula.
In Book 1, Robert Holt, an unemployed and homeless clerk, seeks shelter by entering through an open window into a house. Inside the house, he sees glowing eyes from which he is unable to draw his gaze. Even when he realizes the creature he sees is not human, he finds himself unable to flee. Eventually, the creature approaches him and “mounts” him, crawling up him. The description of this encounter is very sexual, the creature even coming to his “loins.” Given the book’s title, the reader assumes this creature is the beetle. It is described in sticky, wet terms that make it sound female, and yet also male. Later, a light comes on and the creature disappears. Holt finds himself in a room with a man in a bed. This man throughout the novel will also be described as an Oriental and an Arab. Like the mysterious creature, the man also has hypnotic eyes, and he orders Holt to undress. Unable to resist, Holt is left standing naked before the man. The man, with female features, ultimately kisses Holt, which seems to be a way of feeding upon him. Toward the end of the novel, Holt is found with scratches on his neck and he appears to have been drained of life, reminiscent of vampire behavior, although the beetle is clearly not a vampire. The scenes with Holt are the most disturbing and intriguing of the entire novel. I won’t go into further detail about them but they are filled with sexuality and homoeroticism.
Eventually, Holt is ordered by the strange man to go to the home of Paul Lessingham, a member of Parliament, and rob him. He is told if Lessingham catches him, to utter the words “the beetle” to scare him off. Holt, unable to disobey, does exactly what the strange man says. Lessingham catches Holt in the act of robbery, but he shrinks back in horror when the words “the beetle” are uttered. Holt then flees.
The second book is told by Sydney Atherton, who sees Holt fleeing from Lessingham’s home and goes to warn Lessingham. Atherton is in love with Marjorie Lindon, who is in love with Lessingham.
The third book is told by Marjorie, presenting her view of her love affair. Her father is opposed to the marriage, not liking Lessingham’s politics. Because of Lessingham’s political speeches, the delivery of which might be termed preaching, and because of his first name, Lessingham is called “The Apostle” and “St. Paul” by Atherton. What Marjorie doesn’t know is the story of Lessingham’s past. Lessingham had once traveled to Egypt and there had been walking down a street when he heard a woman singing. He went into the building and found it was a type of nightclub. The woman he heard singing eventually drugged him, and before he knew it, he had lost about two months of time being her sex slave while in a drugged up state. He refers to this woman as the Woman of the Song. This woman has many literary predecessors, notably La Belle Dame Sans Merci, whom Keats wrote about and many of the Pre-Raphaelites painted—a woman who takes men to her fairyland as lovers and when they return to the real world, they find a significant amount of time has passed in what seems just hours. The woman’s ability to take control of a man also recalls H. Ryder Haggard’s novel She. Lessingham only has dim memories of what happened in the den where he was held captive, although he believes human sacrifice is among the crimes committed there. Finally, in a rare moment where his captor forgets to drug him, he is able to escape.
As the novel progresses, it’s realized that the Woman of the Songs, a member of the cult of Isis and perhaps not human but some sort of creature forgotten by history, has traveled to England. It turns out she is the Beetle and also the strange man in the bed whom Holt first met. She is apparently androgynous or able to shift her appearance. Her hypnotic eyes, of course, have predecessors in the hypnotic eyes of the Wandering Jew as featured in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, and vampires, including Stoker’s Dracula, although earlier vampire novels like Polidori’s The Vampyre and Rymer’s Varney the Vampire are more likely influences. A more contemporary source may have been George Du Maurier’s Trilby, in which Svengali hypnotizes and controls the female title character. Prior to The Beetle, hypnotic eyes were attributed to male Gothic figures and they usually controlled men, but Trilby is, to my knowledge, the first novel in which a woman is controlled by hypnotism, and The Beetle is the first novel in which a female character is able to mesmerize another with her eyes.
The novel concludes when Marjorie is kidnapped by the Beetle/Woman of the Song. In fact, Marjorie is forced to dress in Robert Holt’s clothes (who by now is lying close to death) and then make her way to a train station to be smuggled out of England. The implication is that she will become the Woman of the Song’s next human sacrifice. Fortunately, Champnell, the police inspector, who narrates the fourth and final book, along with the help of Atherton, is able to rescue Marjorie in time.
The novel is fascinating for its use of hypnotism, its use of an ancient creature—the Beetle appears to be thousands of years old—its homosexual and homoerotic renderings that are very similar to but surpass the homoeroticism in Dracula, and its treatment of a threat from the East upon England, just as Dracula has been read as a novel about the threat of Eastern European immigrants upon England.
However, the novel ultimately fails to succeed because it never fully explains the mystery. We never understand what the creature is or how it metamorphoses; unlike Dracula, whose role as a vampire is illuminated by Van Helsing’s knowledge, the Beetle is never understood. We do not know how or why the creature becomes a beetle; is the creature cursed like someone who turns into a werewolf is, or is it is some strange creature who was overlooked by zoologists and got written out of evolution theories? At the end of the novel, we are told that Champnell has read a report of a discovery of a hole in the ground in the East where several strange creatures are found dead after an explosion, and we are to assume the Beetle was one of these non-human creatures, but while this makes us feel assured that the threat is over, it does not explain what the Beetle is. Equally unsatisfactory is why the creature comes to England. Paul Lessingham’s past experiences in Egypt allow us to understand that it is the same creature he experienced that has now comes to England. The creature says it wants revenge, but what Paul did, other than escape, is not clear. The creature apparently kidnaps Marjorie as revenge since Paul is engaged to Marjorie, but none of the creature’s motives are really ever made fully clear.
Ultimately, however, what causes the novel to falter, in my opinion, is that Paul Lessingham is not a Gothic wanderer figure—although tormented by memories of the Beetle while in the East, Lessingham is not a transgressor—he did nothing to deserve his torment, and he has no guilt over his past—just simply a horror of an event that occurred in his past. While he apparently brings the creature to England in the sense that it follows him there, he does not intentionally unleash such evil. Of course, in Dracula, no one is at fault for Dracula coming to England either, but Dracula himself is the Gothic wanderer. We learn enough about his past in the novel to know he has committed a transgression—made a pact with the devil by studying in the Scholomance and in the mountains, and thus he is damned, and we know when Dracula is destroyed at the end that an expression of relief comes across his face, a sense that he is glad to be released from the vampirism that fills him. The Beetle’s ending is less satisfactory. It is apparently destroyed, but all that is left is a sticky mess and a lot of unanswered questions. We never learn what the creature was, how it came to be what it was, or why it commits human sacrifice, if that is even what it was doing.
I will not say this is the final word on The Beetle or Richard Marsh. Marsh (1857-1915) actually wrote about eighty novels and stories, none of which have received much critical attention. Several others deserve to be explored, including The Goddess: A Demon (1900) about an Indian sacrificial idol that comes to life with murderous intent, The Joss: a Reversion (1901) about an Englishman who transforms into a hideous idol, A Spoiler of Men (1905), in which a gentleman-criminal renders people slaves to his will through chemical injection, and A Second Coming (1900) which imagines Christ’s return in twentieth century London—another case of the ancient and the modern coming together. I have not read any of these novels, just seen short descriptions of them, but because their themes are similar to those in The Beetle, they may hold further answers into Marsh’s thinking about these themes that will further illuminate a reading of his best-known work.
The Beetle’s popularity definitely struck a chord among its readers, and though eclipsed by Dracula, and understandably, it remains fascinating in many ways. Marsh’s popularity in his day makes further study of him and his works a worthy pursuit for a fuller understanding of Gothic literature at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.