How ridiculous would it sound if I said that the infamous novel Dracula by Bram Stoker—yes, the guy that essentially created the foundation of what we think of when we envision vampires—was originally outsold six to one by a novel that you probably have never heard about?
Well, it’s true. Richard Marsh, author of The Beetle: A Mystery gave Stoker a run for his money in 1897, however, after his novel fell out of print in the sixties, Marsh’s novel has been all but forgotten.
To put this in better context, most people know about Dracula even if they have never even heard of Bram Stoker’s novel. Since the novel’s initial publication, Dracula has become the benchmark for vampires within horror culture. With Gary Oldman’s 1992 depiction of Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or the most recently created Dracula Untold (2014) it’s clear that Dracula has been an influential character for over a century.
The character, with or without Stoker’s name attached, has made so many cameos throughout pop-culture that it might be near impossible to create a comprehensive list. Then again, unlike Marsh, Stoker had the good fortune to remain in print ever since its first publication in April of 1897.
After having read The Beetle: A Mystery (1897) I now know how strange this supernatural mystery-horror this novel truly is. A tale of possession, revenge and literal transformation, the author of this literary oddity was Richard Marsh—born Richard Bernard Heldmann—was actually more successful as a short story author throughout his career. That didn’t stop the fierce competition that this book posed for Stoker’s insanely popular novel. Now, I may have roused your interest on how, exactly, The Beetle: A Mystery is so bizarre? Well, I’ll give you a brief synopsis of it, but be warned, there may be spoilers if you haven’t read it and plan to.
The Beetle: A Mystery (1897)
This Victorian-era mystery is told from the perspective of four different characters; this aptly described motley crew of middle-class individuals find that they are the last hope for civilization when they discover that a shape-shifting monster has arrived in London from the East (specifically Egypt). Now, our ragtag group of gumshoes includes an actual detective by the name of Augustus Champnell, a man named Sidney Atherton, a forward-thinking young lady named Marjorie Lindon, and Robert Holt an out-of-work clerk who can’t seem to catch a break. This seductive, yet inhuman creature has its eye on a British politician by the name of Paul Lessingham (who happens to be the fiancé of Marjorie Lindon), but after enslaving Holt this creature decides to attack London society.
The story itself is presented as a series of elaborate testimonies gathered by Champnell himself, who gives the context of the creature’s motives as well as the status of the rest of the Londoners, who were involved in the adventure, after the fact.
It’s up to these four Londoners to solve this mystery and stop the monster from achieving its goal—but when they find that the monster is actually a gender-swapping female that can transform into a giant Scarab beetle (I mean that part is pretty obvious from the title, but still wtf!) they’re a little bit more than unsettled! The situation gets even more terrifying for our protagonists when they learn that this evil creature, which originated in Ancient Egyptian civilization, is actually a High Priestess of a cult that worships the goddess Isis and has been kidnapping and subsequently sacrificing white British women to her goddess. Now, this is all happening years after Lessingham had been vacationing in Egypt when the Beetle monster, in her female form, had hypnotized him and then forced him to live as her sex slave until he was finally able to break free. During his escape, he attacked the Beetle and fled for his life; as a result of their previous run-in, the Beetle came to England specifically to seek her revenge through torturing and kidnapping his fiancée Lindon and then finally, killing Lessingham.
Of course, our characters are all intertwined in solving this mystery and defeating the beetle, but instead, it turns to a chase in an effort to save the life of Lindon after she had been abducted by the Beetle. They end up catching up with the monster, just to find that Lindon and her captor had been in a trainwreck—while Lindon was found relatively unharmed, they only find scattered burnt rags and bloodstains where the creature should have been. Of course, this uncertain ending marks where Champnell decided that he had exhausted his investigation, but had high hopes that the Beetle will never return.
Final Thoughts on The Beetle: A Mystery
Marsh wrote this novel to be a sort of literary fake, describing the events from each of the narrator’s points of view as if it were based on true events and insinuating that names had been changed to protect the identities of those involved. Even the year in which the events occurred is left ambiguous, with the reference to it having happened in the year of 18— around June 2, on a Friday. It was initially released piece by piece over the course of several weeks then finally released as a full novel later in the year—think of this in terms of Edgar Allan Poe’s Great Balloon Hoax in the paper, or H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds radio theater broadcast. Marsh, at the time, was an extremely prolific short story author so this story served as a heightened form of entertainment for the era.
I have a few objections about this novel, despite the fact that I thought it was a good read; to me, this novel was a little xenophobic—in the sense of what comes from the “exotic” East is dangerous or evil. In contrast to that blatant xenophobic message, there is also a message that speaks against colonization—that warning of something bad happening when we trespass into the lands of others and assume to have any authority. This, in my opinion, is a strange stance for a Victorian-era author like Marsh to take, but this was written during England’s colonization of Egypt during the late 1800s and England wouldn’t end its occupation of Egypt until the early 1920s. It’s safe to say that fear of foreigners was fairly commonplace, but that is but one of the
This novel provides a general commentary that would have been accurate at the time, with its anxieties over gender and sexuality—both of which are still providing consternation from the more conservative people in society. It also addresses the panic that white people may have had (or still have) in regards to traveling to non-English speaking countries, in fear of their precious white bodies and in particular white women’s bodies would be harmed or taken advantage of by the so-called evil foreigners.
The Beetle: A Mystery was published in 1897, so it’s well within the public domain laws and can be read here, or you can purchase a physical copy here. If you’re interested in learning more about Bram Stoker and his novel Dracula, you can always take a look at our article dedicated to the topic.
Rutigliano, O. (2020, April 27). This is the weird horror novel that outsold Dracula in 1897. Retrieved November 07, 2020, from https://lithub.com/this-is-the-weird-horror-novel-that-outsold-dracula-in-1897/
Marsh, R. (2019). The Beetle: A mystery. Sweden: Timaios Press.
Tichelaar, T. (2018, October 25). Dracula’s Rival: The Beetle by Richard Marsh. Retrieved November 07, 2020, from https://thegothicwanderer.wordpress.com/2018/10/24/draculas-rival-the-beetle-by-richard-marsh/
Author. Artist. A little bit Alaskan. Mary lives with her dog in a rural cabin outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. They explore the bounty of the Alaskan wilderness during the summer and cozy up in their log cabin during the winter.