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Dracula’s Rival: The Beetle by Richard Marsh

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.

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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.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula, The Wandering Jew

Interview with Tantra Bensko, Author of “Encore: A Contemporary Love Story of Hypnotic Abduction”

Today, I’m pleased to welcome Tantra Bensko to the Gothic Wanderer blog. She will enlighten us about her latest work, the standalone book, Encore, which is Book III in The Agents of the Nevermind series of Psychological Suspense novels about the heroism of exposing social engineering. The US Review of Books says about Encore: “From the description of Miriam’s post-abduction ride to her captivity in the castle, one is reminded of such Gothic treasures as Rebecca and Wuthering Heights.”

Tantra Bensko, author of ENCORE

Tantra, who has an MA from Florida State and an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, has given her life over to writing and helping others create their stories. She has hundreds of publications in magazines, has taught writing for fourteen years with universities such as UCLA Extension Writing Program, and edits manuscripts with Book Butchers.

Tyler: Welcome, Tantra. Can you give us some background to the series and your approach to writing about social engineering?

Tantra: Thank you, I’m honored to connect with you, Tyler, as you’re one of my heroes that I’ve learned a lot from.

Well, you’ve probably noticed that rarely in a novel is our own president of the United States the president in the book, as that would be quite awkward, particularly in fiction with a strong political awareness. So, in that sense, these kinds of books are always Alternate Reality. In this series, the timeline of reality shifted slightly when President Planda gained office in conjunction with the new intelligence agency, the Nevermind, which took over certain propaganda functions from the CIA, etc. and networked strongly with the UK.

This shift allows me to dramatize methods of media theater, blackmail, movies, and other traditional widespread means of prompting the public to believe in the military agendas that governments are promoting, such as coups and proxy wars to steal resources, run drugs, and keep control of the petrodollar. I’m fascinated by such gaslighting of the public and the brainwashing of key individuals who have the capacity to influence the masses. That topic is a perfect fit for Psychological Suspense and the Gothic, which engendered that genre.

The Nevermind Agents, who are the antagonists of the series, are masters of hypnosis and dubious occult practices, so in Encore, for example, I delve into the history of how our mystical beliefs have been induced and used against us. We see the fallout from Enochian magick, mind control, Theosophy, Thelema, and other intersections of famous intelligence assets with metaphysical secret societies.

While the first two books in the series take place in the United States with focus on other countries which are being targeted militarily, this third book is set in England, which was great fun. I got to study all about portcullises! (Brilliant weapons built into castle entryways.) The book does have a strong international scope, as it references the time around the World Wars when the major powers were trying to manipulate public opinion through appropriating the competing legends of Shambhalla and Atlantis. The East favored Shambhalla and the West favored Atlantis, because each could claim divine heritage from those locations and, thus, the right to rule. The Nevermind keeps the interest in such mythologies alive as much as it was back in the New Age heyday, to continue that kind of political manipulation.

I’ve been gratified by how well readers see the parallels to today’s actual social engineering when they respond to my Agents of the Nevermind novels. I’m passionate about revealing the methods of influencing the minds of the masses through bypassing logic and critical thinking and that’s ideal for Psychological Suspense. When people want to bond with their peers or a significant other, they can be easily led into shared beliefs and they won’t let go of those ideas unless the reality shoots them in the face.

Tyler: Without giving away too much, will you tell us a little about the opening or premise of Encore?

Tantra: Encore begins with a troupe in England performing the history of a gem which features in legends of Shambhalla and Atlantis. The troupe’s hypnotist, Dune, has made them famous, especially his wife Susan, who is the star.

After the star’s disappearance before the show, her standby, Miriam, takes Susan’s place. Dune always hypnotizes the standbys to believe they are the actors they replace: the post-hypnotic suggestion ends when the final curtain lands, and they remember their identity. Before the curtain lands, Dune whisks Miriam to a castle.

Meanwhile, Miriam’s friend, Colin, who just kissed her for the first time, seeks to rescue her.

Tyler: You label Encore: A Hypnotic Abduction as a Contemporary Gothic novel. In what ways does it follow and expand the rich tradition of that genre in a way that is relevant today?

Encore is a modern Gothic novel using elements from classic Gothic literature

Tantra: I appreciate the education you provide on the subject on your website and in your book The Gothic Wanderer—and as you describe in those, the fall of the monarchy with the French Revolution made people worry about the stability and corresponding hierarchy of the family unit. Some of the characters in this novel are British Republicans who would like to see the monarchy abolished. The Agents fund their dubious practices through precarious illicit methods to keep the networked countries of England and the U.S. afloat.

Delving deeply into family history embedded in ancient architecture generally takes Gothic heroines into shocking-secret territory, often related to hidden relatives, improper sex acts, the return of the oppressed to gain vengeance, and strange alliances with unexpected consequences. There is a sense of decay of tradition at the same time and a desperate attempt to hold onto it—for the Agents, for nefarious purposes, and for the hecklers at the Bennu performance at the theater, because their cultural identities are attached to those traditions.

Encore gleefully celebrates all the tropes, such as first person POV of an isolated heroine, ambiguity and dissolution of identity, having to choose between the dark and light hero without knowing which is which, oubliettes, tunnels, cemeteries, grotesque caricatures, incest, paintings that follow the heroines, doppelgangers, curses, the quest for elixirs of immortality, secret societies and cults influencing the world through rituals, and a powerful, charismatic man controlling the mind of a woman. It takes place in present-time with current issues such as insider trading, the kind of “alchemical homeopathic mixtures” that are available for sale now, claims for the rare gem, Moldavite that one can easily find online, the Free Tibet movement.

Since reviews of Encore align it with the core Gothic conventions, I may move ahead in the future with publishing the book I drafted when preparing to write this and my other novels with Gothic elements: How to Write a Gothic Novel. I certainly will cite you in that.

Tyler: Wow. You went all out with inserting Gothic elements into the book. So, tell me, what about the Gothic appeals to you so much, and why do you think readers still want to read about these Gothic themes?

Tantra: Gothic Romance on Amazon is one of the very strongest, most lucrative, and promising genres to publish in these days, with sales continually rising higher, and yet there’s not too much competition. Many books listed there aren’t what I would label Gothic, but I’m a stickler for being literal about genres. They are often really Paranormal Romance, instead, and that’s a fetish for many people. And, of course, Gothic Horror lends itself to being campy, which is a handy quality for books written with an eye toward being adapted to low budget Horror movies.

I think Gothic is extremely relevant today. We’re still worried about the crumbling of the family, still experiencing fearful guilt resulting from living under an improperly behaving government that destroys other countries for profit, creating immigrants who flood in. And for the government to act like destroying those countries is humanitarian and moral, they have to get intelligence agents to create propaganda that gets the public on board with foreign policy. They portray a war hawk like John McCain as the hero to emulate. They create false flags, making it look like the leader of a foreign country gassed his own people, so we should support terrorists to kill more of his people. And the intelligence agents in the news stations create hysteria and peer pressure to rile people up enough that they bypass logic in order to accept such easily disproven claims. That kind of gaslighting seems like the epitome of the Gothic to me.

And Gothic is fun. Who doesn’t like dungeons, tunnels, spooky cemeteries, foggy forests, exaggerated emotions, dangerous secrets? Reading a Gothic story, we vicariously travel further and further toward the dark truth as we travel down into the snaky underground in the primitive darkness, carrying a torch. People are surrounded by deception and when we’re bewildered, catching on that something is not what it seems, we can be gratified by the heroes facing the dreamlike symbolic horrors underneath the surface. We can feel like we’re strong enough to do so to and we may be able to figure everything out and expose the lies.

Will humanity ever move past the typical Gothic relationship of a person being inexorably drawn to a man who is immensely compelling yet secretive and dangerous? Is he dangerous to others enough that he will protect us? Or will he kill us instead? How can we be satisfied with a nice, sweet, open, and honest man like we should be when we’re on fire for the charismatic, powerful man instead? Sometimes we have to move through the process, trying out the intense man and being burned before we can see the charms of the simply kind man.

Tyler: What do you hope readers will feel or think after reading your book?

Tantra: I hope the liberation at the end of the novel makes them feel exhilarated after vicariously living Miriam’s claustrophobic experience of being trapped at the castle and in her own belief that she needs to be someone else to be acceptable.

That belief sounds irrational, but when you look at how people create false personae through social media, for example, it’s obviously common. Narcissists are at the extreme end of the spectrum, presenting themselves as more successful, confident, and charming than they feel inside. But according to statistics, most people lie multiple times every day. Unless they’ve plucked their eyebrows and painted new ones in, many women can be afraid to leave the house to walk among random strangers on the street. And some musicians create fan pages on Facebook, invite all their friends to “like” the pages, then unfriend them so they have room in their allotted 5,000 to make more friends and get them to like their pages. . . I think most people could benefit by learning how to drop some of that desperate need for being put on a pedestal.

I also hope the book improves people’s sense of a pattern: how intelligence agents put one over on unsuspecting people. And I hope readers will feel thoroughly entertained, their hearts full, their stride empowered, and their minds lit up by flickering images of the gorgeous English landscape.

Tyler: What do you hope readers will most appreciate about your writing?

Tantra: I hope they get value from my extensive research into history, such as the famous intelligence assets who went undercover as occultists like John Dee, Madame Blavatsky, Nicholas Roerich and Aleister Crowley, and some sinister elements of Tantric tradition as well as some applicable methods of circulating life force energy with a lover.

I also hope they enjoy the suspense of hope versus the creeping sense of dread. The cinematic, dramatic romance with the highly fetishized friend-to-lover trope should have its appeal, as Colin goes all out for Miriam while living like a wild man on the castle grounds. I have to say, writing the portion of the novel in which Miriam believes she is Susan was no easy task.

Tyler: Thanks for the opportunity to interview you, Tantra. Will you let our readers know about your website and what information they can find there about your books and how to buy them?

Tantra: People who are interested in staying in the loop can sign up for the newsletter at any of my sites and they’ll receive many gifts. All the books can be found at Amazon and Kobo.

Encore website

Insubordinate Books website for the Nevermind novels and others, such as the forthcoming Psychological Suspense book, Floating on Secrets. The links to buy should be easy to navigate from there.

Thank you very much for posting this interview on your excellent site, and very best wishes to you.

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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.

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