Somehow, when I am with a man I feel so much more clear-headed than I do when I am with a woman.
– Richard Marsh, The Beetle: A Mystery (1897)
Readers who like their fiction gruesome, and who are not repelled by unpleasant realistic details, may safely order The Beetle from the library.
– London Daily News (1897)
What a very strange, haunting book this is. One of the characters frets about the kind of ‘diseased and morbid imagination’ that can be found in ‘the literature of the gutter’, and there’s certainly plenty of that going on, along with some hack melodrama. But despite its many flaws, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle is damn close to being a masterpiece, an exceptional novel even by the standards of that greatest of all literary decades, the 1890s.
At one level, it’s a conventional tale of romance in high society, centring on Paul Lessingham, a charismatic and radical politician. He inspires adoration among the downtrodden in late Victorian Britain: ‘the great Paul Lessingham,’ a distressed member of the lower-middle classes calls him, ‘the god of my political idolatry.’ He’s also a fine physical specimen. ‘The fellow’s lithe and active,’ observes a friend; ‘clean built, well hung.’*
As we join the story, Lessingham has just become engaged to a society beauty, Marjorie Lindon. There are, however, two immediate obstacles to their union. First, Marjorie’s father is a crusty old Tory MP who loathes everything Lessingham stands for, and second, she has another suitor, Sydney Atherton, a friend from childhood who’s only just realized he too is in love with her.
Less obviously, but more significantly, there’s a problem with Lessingham himself, a man who has seemingly risen without trace. He was elected as MP for Harwich five years ago, ‘but how he came to stand for the place – or who, or what, or where he was before he stood for the place, no one seems to have the faintest notion’.
Some people wonder whether he really exists, outside the political arena. ‘If you were to sink a shaft from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet,’ observes his romantic rival Atherton, ‘you would find inside him nothing but the dry bones of parties and of politics.’
In fact, this is mistaken, but it’s an understandable error because Lessingham is so reticent about anything personal. ‘I hold that the private life even of a public man should be held inviolate,’ he insists. ‘I resent, with peculiar bitterness, the attempts of prying eyes to peer into matters which, as it seems to me, concern myself alone.’
You might assume from this that he has something to hide. And indeed he does.
In his youth, he eventually confesses, he had decided that rather than go to university, he’d travel the world. He ended up in Cairo and, ‘eager for something which had in it a spice of adventure,’ he found himself the only customer in a backstreet bar, attracted by the sounds of a young woman singing songs that were ‘indescribably weird and thrilling’. Somewhat ill-advisedly, he accepted the liquor put in front of him: ‘So enthralled was I by the display of the girl’s astonishing gifts that I did not notice what it was I was drinking…’
He woke to find he’d been abducted. But this was no ordinary case of robbery, or even of being held for ransom. Instead, for over two months, he was kept captive – naked, drugged, and hypnotised into a state of submission – in a secret subterranean temple, dedicated to Isis, where a fanatical cult is said ‘to still practise, and to always have practised, in unbroken historical continuity, the debased, unclean, mystic, and bloody rites, of a form of idolatry which had had its birth in a period of the world’s story which was so remote, that to all intents and purposes it might be described as pre-historic’.
Quite what happened during his sojourn in the temple is uncertain. ‘What I judge to have been religious services took place,’ shudders Lessingham; ‘if my memory is in the least degree trustworthy, they were orgies of nameless horrors.’ One thing only do we know for sure: ‘it was their constant practice to offer young women as sacrifices – preferably white Christian women, with a special preference, if they could get them, to young English women.’ Lessingham witnessed one such sacrifice of ‘a woman, stripped to the skin, as white as you or I’. She was burned alive on an altar, ‘and before they burned her they subjected her to every variety of outrage of which even the minds of demons could conceive’.
Eventually, Lessingham escaped, killing his captor in the process. And, after a long period of physical and mental recuperation, he returned home and embarked on his political career, resolved to put the whole incident out of his head.
But now, some years later, one of the priests of Isis has come to London, swearing vengeance for ‘the blood of my kin’, determined to destroy both him and his beloved Marjorie.
When Marjorie is subsequently abducted, it is clear that she ‘stands in imminent peril not only of a ghastly death, but of what is infinitely worse than death’. Realizing the danger, Lessingham and Atherton put aside their rivalry, and team up with a private investigator, Augustus Champnell to rescue her.
All of this is good stuff for a shocker. Like Dracula, another overwrought classic from the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, we get ancient evil erupting into modern London, a world of telegrams and telephones. And, like Dracula, the story is split between various narrators – four of them here. The story is revealed piecemeal, with flashbacks and narratives that sometimes overlap.
What lifts The Beetle above even Bram Stoker’s novel, though, is its theme of what would nowadays be called gender fluidity.
Lessingham’s captor in Cairo is a woman, who seduces him while he’s under her mesmeric spell. This being 1897, the description of their physical relationship never ventures beyond kissing, but that’s enough for him: ‘I am altogether incapable of even hinting to you the nauseous nature of that woman’s kisses. They filled me with an indescribable repulsion.’ And obviously we’re expected to assume that things did go further: ‘I cannot describe to you the sense of horror and of loathing with which the contact of her lips oppressed me. There was about her something so unnatural, so inhuman.’
We don’t get a description of her, but we see a clearer picture of the priest who arrives in London, years later, claiming kinship with her. There’s some uncertainty, however, about this person’s sex. ‘I could not at once decide if it was a man or a woman,’ reports our first witness. ‘But, afterwards, I knew it to be a man.’ If so, he was a man of striking appearance:
There was not a hair upon his face or head, but, to make up for it, the skin, which was a saffron yellow, was an amazing mass of wrinkles. The cranium, and, indeed, the whole skull, was so small as to be disagreeably suggestive of something animal. The nose, on the other hand, was abnormally large; so extravagant were its dimensions, and so peculiar its shape, it resembled the beak of some bird of prey. A characteristic of the face – and an uncomfortable one! – was that, practically, it stopped short at the mouth. The mouth, with its blubber lips, came immediately underneath the nose, and chin, to all intents and purposes, there was none.
This is the description given by his first victim in London, an unemployed clerk who occupies what might be called the Renfield role: he is hypnotized and becomes the slave of this self-proclaimed ‘child of Isis’. A very odd relationship develops. It starts with the priest demanding that the clerk strip. He does so. ‘A look came on his face, as I stood naked in front of him, which, if it was meant for a smile, was a satyr’s smile, and which filled me with a sensation of shuddering repulsion.’ The priest flirts menacingly at him: ‘What a white skin you have – how white! What would I not give for a skin as white as that!’
He then sends the clerk into something akin to a trance, leaving him on the floor, where ‘I lay, like a log’. And as the man lies there naked, the priest begins exploring his body:
Fingers were pressed into my cheeks, they were thrust into my mouth, they touched my staring eyes, shut my eyelids, then opened them again, and – horror of horrors! – the blubber lips were pressed to mine – the soul of something evil entered into me in the guise of a kiss.
Again, we’re presumably reading that ‘kiss’ to imply something more, something unspeakable.
Later, the clerk is allowed to put on a cloak before being sent out to complete his master’s criminal tasks, but he remains naked underneath the single garment. (Why this revealing outfit? We never discover.) And when he returns from his nefarious deeds, the sinister flirting resumes: ‘Is it not sweet to stand close at my side? You, with your white skin, if I were a woman, would you not take me for a wife?’
Even in his hypnotized state, the clerk is startled by the question. It’s not just the words: ‘There was something about the manner in which this was said which was so essentially feminine that once more I wondered if I could possibly be mistaken in the creature’s sex.’ His very next comment, on the other hand, suggests a certain lack of gallantry in his attitude towards women: ‘I would have given much to have been able to strike him across the face – or, better, to have taken him by the neck, and thrown him through the window, and rolled him in the mud.’
The whole episode is deeply unsettling. ‘Looking back,’ reflects the clerk later, ‘it seems to me that it was as if I had been taken out of the corporeal body to be plunged into the inner chambers of all nameless sin.’
This is not the only confusion over physical shape. We subsequently learn that the ancient priests of Isis claimed they would change into the form of a giant scarab beetle when they died. Lessingham is convinced he’s seen such a thing happen. One of the horrors that’s haunted him down the years is the fact that, in his escape from the temple, he’d strangled his seducer/tormentor. And in her death throes:
I felt her slipping from between my fingers. Without the slightest warning, in an instant she had vanished, and where, not a moment before, she herself had been, I found myself confronting a monstrous beetle – a huge, writhing creation of some wild nightmare.
The priest who turns up in London has, it turns out, a similar shape-shifting ability. He visits Sydney Atherton, and displays the change from human to beetle and then back to human again. (The association with dying has been quietly dropped.) In the course of this transformation, all clothing is shed, and the naked human form at the end of the process reveals to Atherton ‘that I had been egregiously mistaken on the question of sex. My visitor was not a man, but a woman, and, judging from the brief glimpse which I had of her body, by no means old or ill-shaped either.’
That, of course, throws a different light on the earlier exchanges between the creature and the clerk. But it’s not necessarily conclusive. Atherton himself is confused, and later remarks: ‘goodness alone knows what the infernal conjurer’s real sex may be.’
The gender-shifting doesn’t end there. When the creature abducts Marjorie, s/he hypnotizes her and forces ‘her to strip herself to the skin’. (Again the nakedness: Marjorie’s the fifth character I’ve mentioned who’s been stripped naked. I can’t think of another novel from the era – outside pornography – that has so much nudity.) S/he then cuts off Marjorie’s hair and dresses her in dirty and tattered male clothing, so that ‘the lovely daughter of a famous house, the wife-elect of a coming statesman’ appears to be ‘a young man costumed like a tramp’. Why? We never discover.
What we do see is the attitude of the men in her life to this development. Atherton, her lifelong friend and would-be suitor, responds to the revelation of her being dressed as a man with something nearer excitement than horror: ‘Great Potiphar! To think of Marjorie like that!’
Her fiancé, Lessingham, on the other hand, is simply unmanned by the idea that Marjorie has fallen into his enemy’s hands. So disturbed is he that Champnell, the private investigator, has to reprimand him: ‘I have always understood that you were a man of unusual strength; you appear instead, to be a man of extraordinary weakness; with an imagination so ill-governed that its ebullitions remind me of nothing so much as feminine hysterics.’ In short, Lessingham is behaving like a ‘hysterical woman’.
What’s so upsetting to Lessingham is the echo from Cairo, the sexual ambiguity of his experiences with the woman who was ‘rather a devil than a human being, drunk with an insensate frenzy, delirious with inhuman longings’. That creature had taken female form, but the sexual roles expected in Victorian society were reversed in her encounters with Lessingham: ‘The most dreadful part of it was that I was wholly incapable of offering even the faintest resistance to her caresses. I lay there like a log. She did with me as she would, and in dumb agony I endured.’ (Note the repetition of the clerk’s ‘I lay, like a log’.) The arrival of her colleague in London sends him spinning back to that feminine passivity.
The year that this was published was not only the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee, but also of the release from gaol of Oscar Wilde, and it’s hard not to see The Beetle as being – like E.W. Hornung’s tales of Raffles – an exploration of homosexuality in the last years of the old queen’s reign.
After he escaped from the Cairo temple, Lessingham told no one of his ‘adventures in that extraordinary, and horrible place’, and despite being – in his own account, at least – the victim of serious crimes, he seems rather to feel guilty about his participation in ‘the cult of the obscene deity’. When he does get round to talking, he describes the events as ‘certain incidents in my career which I had hoped would continue locked in the secret depository of my own bosom’. Like the clerk, he feels shame at having experienced ‘nameless sin’, and, in a revealing phrase, he describes his recovery from his ordeal as having ‘once more become as other men’.
Why, after all these years, has the priest of Isis come looking for revenge? Again, we never discover, but the timing does seem symbolic: s/he arrives just as Lessingham becomes engaged. And, seemingly in a fit of jealousy, the creature’s first thought on learning of the engagement is to attack Marjorie: ‘the gods of the shadows shall smell the sweet incense of her suffering!’
Just as the priest’s sex is ambiguous, so too is his/her ethnicity. Some think s/he is an Arab, but Champnell – who’s a bit more knowledgeable – is having none of it: ‘probably no more an Arab than I was.’ Atherton is similarly undecided:
The fellow was oriental to the finger-tips – that much was certain; yet in spite of a pretty wide personal knowledge of oriental people I could not make up my mind as to the exact part of the east from which he came. He was hardly an Arab, he was not a fellah.
He has another suggestion. ‘His lips were thick and shapeless,’ which makes Atherton think that perhaps ‘in his veins there ran more than a streak of negro blood’.
It doesn’t take a great flight of fancy to detect a sense of unease here about the Empire, running alongside, and sometimes merging with, the sexual undertow. In case there is any doubt, we learn towards the end that a strange subterranean structure – quite probably the temple of Isis where Lessingham was imprisoned – was discovered ‘during the recent expeditionary advance towards Dongola’. The expedition in question was the 1896 campaign led by Herbert Kitchener to retake Sudan, partly in revenge for the killing of General Gordon at the hands of the Mahdi rebels. Imperial adventuring, it seems, can unleash primitive evils believed to have been long-since vanquished.
I said there were flaws, and there are. The book’s riddled with them. Quite apart from the absurd coincidences (but then, as Champnell observes, ‘the world is all coincidence’), there are loose ends, plotting irregularities, abrupt changes of tone, and unnecessary stray characters who get in the way of the story. Even the main characters are inconsistent, so that Sydney Atherton starts his part of the narrative sounding like a foppish fool in a proto-Wodehouse way, before we learn that he’s actually a quite brilliant scientist and inventor.
Atherton is working, incidentally, on the development of a deadly poison gas, to be used for military purposes: ‘I went into my laboratory to plan murder – legalised murder – on the biggest scale it ever has been planned. I was on the track of a weapon which would make war not only an affair of a single campaign, but of a single half-hour.’ He’s one of the few scientists in the popular literature of the time who’s not deranged (Doctors Jekyll, Moreau, Griffin, Lamb and Raymond come to mind), but on the other hand he is engaged in chemical warfare research, which may well be worse.
There’s no particular relevance to this. Nor to the satirical account of Lessingham speaking in the House of Commons, where Atherton celebrates ‘the Press Gallery; where is the brain of the House, and ninety per cent of its wisdom.’ And when Marjorie’s father objects to her choice of partner – that’s a red herring as well.
Elsewhere, the introduction of the aristocratic investigator (Champnell is the son of the Earl of Glenlivet) promises more detection than is ever delivered, though it does allow for a little light parody of Sherlock Holmes. Similarly, the opening scene – in which the unemployed and destitute clerk is turned away from the door of a workhouse – has a Dickensian air that soon dissipates.
These digressions are often baffling and annoying, but cumulatively, counter-intuitively they do work rather well in the big picture. By creating a world recognizable from other fiction, they intensify by contrast the impact of the horror.
The ending, on the other hand – despite the allure of a train-chase – rather peters out. And most of our questions about what’s been happening simply don’t get answered. Fairly early on, the scientist Atherton notes that ‘there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in our philosophy’, and 170 pages later, we end on exactly the same note. ‘Experience has taught me,’ says Champnell, ‘that there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy.’
But these are minor matters. It’s a genuinely exciting, disturbing and – at times – flesh-creeping story, with, as estate agents say, a number of original features. It feels at times as though we’re listening to late-Victorian Britain on the analyst’s couch.
* I know that sniggering at the phrase ‘well-hung’ is no better than sniggering whenever Dr Watson ejaculates to Sherlock Holmes. But damnit all, a man can snigger, can’t he?