Richard Marsh | Consul Books | 1967 | 253 pages
Originally published in 1897, The Beetle spins a tale of supernatural horrors over the course of four distinct sections, each featuring a narration of the often overlapping events from a different character’s point of view. It merges a few popular genres into a mash-up of mystery, serial pot-boiler, and detective fiction into a tale of revenge by an ancient cult.
The first section is the most moodily atmospheric, establishing the arrival of a strange, malicious presence through the eyes of a destitute man. Robert Holt, an unemployed clerk turned away from a public housing shelter, breaks into a run-down cottage seeking a temporary refuge for the night. Inside, he encounters a grotesque, but magnetic, creature who quickly places him under a kind of mind control. Unable to fight the mesmeric spell, Holt is directed to travel across the city and break into the house of Paul Lessingham, a young and quickly rising star in the House of Commons.
Holt is a broken man traversing the landscape of a squalid neighborhood, dirty, barefoot and dressed in rags. He is a tragic character whose plight already makes him invisible to polite society, but is further shielded by the unyielding drive of a remote mind. Confronted during his burglary, Holt escapes capture, strickening Lessingham simply by repeating the instructed words, “The Beetle!”
With the story established, the middle sections of the book stall out the momentum, introducing Paul Lessingham’s fiance, Marjorie Lindon, and rival for her affections, Sydney Atherton. The Beetle’s shape-shifting villainy is revealed, but any evil machinations are temporarily tabled in favor of the chamber drama between these two characters. Lessingham is already understood to be the ultimate focus of the Beetle’s revenge, and the shift in perspective just seems to circle around the initial burglary and other shared incidents without adding much illumination. Many pages detail the latent love triangle, but the romantic angle just conflates the importance Marjorie holds to Atherton and Lessingham as an impending victim.
The attitudes of the era in which the book was originally written are not only reflected in Marjorie, but in Atherton as well. Twenty or so years before the horrors of World War I, Atherton good-naturedly works as an inventor of chemical weapons capable of killing entire armies—and nearly kills an associate with a clumsily broken capsule of poison gas!
Interestingly, Paul Lessingham occupies the core of the revenge story, but does not have a dedicated section expressing his character’s point of view. A cool and effective orator and politician, Lessingham falls victim to crippling hysterics at the sight of simple missives from the Beetle.
The final section switches the action to detective mode, as private investigator Augustus Champnell takes up the challenge to find the elusive Beetle and save Marjorie’s life. Precipitating the headlong chase is Lessingham’s story detailing his original encounter with the Beetle twenty years prior in Egypt. His capture and escape from the clutches of an ancient cult brought him first hand observations of a secret society engaging in ritual human sacrifice, underscoring the Victorian fascination with the exotic and deadly dangers of the orient.
The pursuit of the villain on the British rail system finally amounts to something of a glorified game of trainspotting, with a deus ex machina train crash offering a resolution to the proceedings the protagonists seem incapable of providing themselves.