Sunday, December 26, 2010

Richard Marsh’s The Beetle

Richard Marsh’s The Beetle is certainly one very bizarre and outrageous book.  It’s included in Victorian Villainies, which includes four Victorian mysteries, elected by Graham Greene and his brother Hugh. It’s actually a short novel.
Although it’s a mystery it contains very definite elements of the gothic, it involves supernatural or apparently supernatural events, and there’s some horror.

It was written in 1897, and it highlights some of the obsessions of that time period.  Hypnotism plays a major role, and (of course) a sinister one.  There’s also the Mysterious East.  And devilish foreign cults involving human sacrifice – the favoured sacrifices being (naturally) white Christian women!  That part is probably influenced by the British experience with the Thugs in India, and their sacrifices to Kali.  Ancient Egypt also plays a key role – the devilish cultists are the Children of Isis.  They bear no resemblance whatsoever to anything that ever happened in Ancient Egypt, but they do give some idea of how the Victorians imagined Ancient Egypt.

The plot is too complicated to explain, except that it involves a member of parliament haunted by an event in his past, a derelict house with a strange inhabitant, and a romantic triangle.  There are mysterious disappearances, there are people who can transform into scarab beetles (hence the title), and there are nameless horrors.  

It’s extremely complicated in structure (like so many 19th century novels) with no less than four first person narrators.  It’s all very breathless, but it’s also highly entertaining.  I liked it.
At the time it apparently outsold Bram Stoker's Dracula, published in the same year.

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