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on 5 May 2014
The Beetle (1897) concerns the impact on English life of a mysterious oriental figure who pursues a British politician from Egypt to London, where he wreaks havoc with his powers of hypnosis and shape and even gender shifting. Published the same year as Dracula (which it outsold) the novel is structured as four consecutive narratives, with further narratives within them, a style not dissimilar to that of Dracula and the Woman in White and popular in Victorian times. Marsh doesn’t differentiate the various narrative voices particularly well and uses highly overblown language though not without a sense of irony. However his horror, The Beetle, the centre of a strange cult, is original, and the plot brings together elements of white slave trafficking, mesmerism, feminism, class prejudice, racism and xenophobia. How much Marsh is a product of his time and how much he distanced himself from it is a matter of interpretation, but the novel has more subtleties than are obvious. The reference by one narrator to the case of the Duchess of Datchet’s deed box sounds like a Holmesian homage but it is actually the title of a novel that he wrote a couple of years after the Beetle. At times the story seems slowed by the redundancy of the multiple narratives, at other times he throws away an entire sequel in a sentence. Anyway it all comes to a rather exciting climax. Lovecraft praised the novel in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature and it clearly influenced his own stories with its references to nameless horrors and loathsome practices. If you are looking for a fast paced supernatural thriller then this is a good place to pause.