We’re all familiar with the literary canon, thought to be the realm of dead white men. But when we are always told that the classic love story is Jane Eyre and the quintessential horror is Dracula, we feel like we might be missing something. In this series, we uncover some forgotten gems of literature’s past…
It seems fitting to begin this series with a novel which once outsold Bram Stoker’s Dracula, then. While it may be known to some English students at the University of Nottingham, The Beetle: A Mystery, by British author Richard Bernard Heldmann (alias Richard Marsh) had been out of print for almost fifty years.
According to David Stuart Davies’ introduction in the 2007 Wordsworth Edition reprint, this forgotten classic actually outsold Stoker’s masterpiece in the first year of publication, and there is, allegedly, ‘an apocryphal tale that Stoker and Marsh had a wager to see who could produce the most successful supernatural novel’, though Davies insists that this ‘is unlikely to be true’.
“The Beetle as well as Dracula is told through the viewpoint of different characters”
However, first-time readers to the novels would be forgiven for believing this, as The Beetle as well as Dracula is told through the viewpoint of different characters, each section propelling the plot of the novel and shedding light on mysteries of the previous section. This allows for some brilliant social commentary, too, as in Marjorie Lindon’s section, we see that Sydney Atherton’s unlucky-in-love façade is not quite what it seems (those who have had unwanted admirers stuck in the ‘friend zone’ will find a lot to like here – was Marsh the first to note this phenomenon?)
“The Beetle was very successful initially, having gone through fifteen printings in its first sixteen years of publication”
It’s unfair to compare one work of art or literature with another, but if age and canon chose Dracula over The Beetle (they were both originally published in 1897), it may we worth noting why, based on their differences. The Beetle was very successful initially, having gone through fifteen printings in its first sixteen years of publication, right until 1913. Horror at this point took on the shape of the unknown and the mysterious, as by the late Victorian era Britain had changed almost unrecognisably from the society it was. Authors such as Marsh, Wilde and Dickens played on concepts of fear surrounding the exotic, inexplicable scientific advancements, and the horrors of the inner city, all of which can be seen to have influenced The Beetle.
And then the Great War came, and horror began to don a face once more. Humanity no longer looked at their own society in fear, but began to see the external world as a threat – a concept which worked very well indeed for Dracula, whose titular villain was a vampire haunting the streets of London. He had a face, and clearly defined abilities, and though he could shape-shift he was as recognisable a threat as any international enemy, a banner to which readers could attach their fears.
“Meanwhile, the monster at the heart of The Beetle – whatever the monster is – is a lot more elusive”
Meanwhile, the monster at the heart of The Beetle – whatever the monster is – is a lot more elusive. Referred to throughout the novel as ‘the Arab’, we are never really sure of what this sinister villain is. Initially appearing as a man with ‘a look of age I had never imagined’, and later revealed to be quite possibly a woman occasionally taking on the shape of a Beetle, and perhaps being the same character as The Woman of Songs…
Like all great horror movie directors, Marsh knew that real terror lied not in what was seen, but in what was imagined. Elusive language is used to describe the Arab, and his – her? its? – apparent mind-control abilities lead to apparently friendly faces being antagonised. In the time of the Modernist movement, when the whole of the known world seemed to be spiralling out of control and the very definitions of art and reality were being redefined, audiences needed at least a substantial, visible threat. Dracula fulfilled that need – not to mention the commercialisation of very vivid film characters such as Dracula and Frankenstein with the dawn of Hollywood, which caused The Beetle to fade into distant memory.
“There hasn’t been a film adaptation of Marsh’s masterpiece since 1919, and perhaps this is for the best”
There hasn’t been a film adaptation of Marsh’s masterpiece since 1919, and perhaps this is for the best. Horror films tend to be lazy nowadays, focusing on big build-ups rather than the general atmosphere of confusion and fear present here. And with the advent of new types of warfare, namely cyber- and domestic-terrorism, real horror no longer has a solid tangible face, and is able to crawl into the minds of ordinary people and control them just like the master of the Beetle. Maybe Marsh’s work will thrive in today’s atmosphere once again, as we are plunged into the unknown once more, just as the book’s original audience was, over a century ago.