Monday, 6 January 2014

Review: 'The Beetle' by Richard Marsh

The late 1800s produced a number of Gothic novels that have remained at the forefront of popular culture, two among them Dracula by Bram Stoker (published in the same year as The Beetle) and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert L. Stevenson (1886). The Beetle is one of the many that has been forgotten when it shouldn't have been. With an accomplished mix between humour and horror, Marsh not only makes a beetle terrifying but also manages to comment on England's society.
'The Beetle' (1897) tells the story of a fantastical creature, "born of neither god nor man," with supernatural and hypnotic powers, who stalks British politician Paul Lessingham through fin de siecle London in search of vengeance for the defilement of a sacred tomb in Egypt. 
In imitation of various popular fiction genres of the late nineteenth century, Marsh unfolds a tale of terror, late imperial fears, and the "return of the repressed," through which the crisis of late imperial Englishness is revealed.
The Beetle shares some typical characteristics with other Gothic works such as Frankenstein (1818) and Dracula, such as the narration from different characters, the presentation of the story as reality and obsession with scientific developments. It is the later that I first want to discuss because, as in the other novels, science is personified in The Beetle. Sydney Asherton was, in my opinion, the best developed character in the novel. He fluctuates between being madly in love, trying to manufacture death and being terribly excited at the prospect of danger. As you might guess, he is the funny character in the novel, both annoying and endearing himself to everyone. That is where he differentiates himself from Van Helsing (Dracula) and Dr. Frankenstein (Frankenstein). His, occasionally, charming nature hides the fact he is actually the most powerful person in the novel as well, unafraid of danger and incredibly gifted. Marsh here manages to leave a hint for those who pay attention, that when all danger seems to have returned to its country of origin, one should not forget to consider ones own country as well.

Also interesting in The Beetle is the position of women. They are both enabling the behaviour of others and showing signs of the New Woman. The New Woman was a feminist concept, the term of which was coined by author Henry James, that described the increase of independent and educated women. As a literary example, Nora from Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House is often chosen because she chooses to become independent and experience life herself. It is important to remember, however, that Ibsen himself wasn't a feminist and wasn't too happy with the feminist interpretation that was given to a number of his plays. In this novel it is Marjorie Lindon who draws most of the attention, although Dora Greyling also shouldn't be forgotten. Surprisingly independent and forward for most of the novel, it is interesting to see how Marsh tries to fit her into the damsel-in-distress trope that is typical for Gothic novels.

Of course, the villain is fascinating. I chose the cover above on purpose because it's terribly over the top and dramatic, but that is exactly what Marsh wanted, mixing in some Sensationalism into his novel. Although it is clearly not a real cult, but rather an amalgamation of a number of different traditions from different African countries, it still works perfectly as a rather intimidating and spooky danger than is impossible to get a hold off. The choice of a beetle was also ingenious, since it invades London like an insect, crawling in the dark, unseen, yet indestructible. The Beetle is the kind of villain that is always lurking, always waiting, until it strikes when you least expect it and and all hell breaks loose.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!!!

I really enjoyed this novel although I was initially hesitant due to the horror and Gothic tags attached to it. The Beetle is an excellent example of both done to perfection. This novel is an example of the unfortunate consequence of time passing. Not all novels are remembered and when you're unfortunate enough to publish your novel at the same time as the birth of the vampire as society's obsession, you get lost among the others. But that brings with it the beauty of discovering a novel like this, something completely unexpected that you can then brag about to everyone else.

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