The Beetle was first published in March of 1897 in the literary magazine “Answers” as a serial story under the name “The Peril of Paul Lessingham: The Story of a Haunted Man”. Written by the enigmatic Richard Marsh the Serial ran for fifteen weeks and was initially targeted at a lower class audience. Then in September of 1897 the serial was repackaged as a novel and refined for the middle and upper middle class. The name was changed to reflect the tastes of this new audience and the novel was published with mostly good reviews.
The novel was continually in print until the late 1920s and it went through 27 print runs in that time. During the late 19th and early 20th century it would be more popular than Dracula, with which it shared similar themes. The Beetle then fell into obscurity in the 1930s. It was not really rediscovered until the 1960s and had very little critical evaluation until the early 1970s. It’s rediscovery among literary critics is due to the themes of sexuality and gender confusion that pervade the novel. The novel’s intense focus on gender in Victorian society has been the crux of much of the modern literary interest and has spurred new editions to be published by several different printing companies. As the book is in the public domain it can also be found free online at sites such as Project Gutenberg and several free editions on Kindle.
Gender, feminism, and homosexuality are the main focus of the novel. The book explores these in depth and the attitudes of the Victorian to each of these in enlightening. These attitudes tell us much about the foundations of our own culture which owes so much to the Victorians in terms of cultural mores and our expectations of gender roles. The Beetle turns gender roles upside down. Portraying women in drag and showing us a very dominating woman who is often mistaken for a man. Not only does the novel delve into the ideas of gender it is also a cautionary tale of mixing the mysticism of the East with the culture and science of the West. The themes of otherness and of eastern influences which corrupt and even dominate white Victorian society are also very prevalent in the novel. Finally the novel is viewed in terms of the psychological oppressiveness of its environment. The villain/creature roams the streets of London hiding in dark places that allow her freedom to work her black magics on her victims.
Most of the literary criticism of this novel has revolved around the idea of gender. The novel is full of scenes of women dressing and acting as men. Much of this gender swapping is forced by the hypnotic suggestion of the priestess of Isis but the character of Marjorie Holt who is forced to dress and act as a man has already been introduced to the reader as one of the “New Women”. She is a feminist and her feminism is juxtaposed against her transgender domination by the priestess of Isis. This priestess when first viewed is almost universally mistaken for a man. These two women form a core of feminist ideology and gender confusion around which the novel becomes rich fodder for gender, feminist, and queer criticism. “Victorian fear of the den depravity, the hidden potency, of the female.” (Hurley 213) the idea of the female using her sexuality was frightening to the Victorian mind. This is a common theme in Victorian literature and it is fully on display in The Beetle. Not only is the priestess able to dominate her victims mentally she is able to walk in both the world of man and woman. She is the ultimate predator both sexually and physically.
Secondary to the modern reader but more important to those contemporary to the novel is the idea of post colonialism, or even reverse colonialism that is presented. “The Other” as represented by the priestess of Isis can be seen as an infection of Western culture by that of the far East. The creature could be seen as a “means of the appropriation and destruction of symbols of the moral, spiritual, and racial superiority of England’s ruling class- its women.”(Garnett 30). The Monster feeds through its domination of women and men, in this way the creature corrupts Victorian society and everything it touches. It is made plain in the book that the monster craves the white flesh of its victims. It wants both to have that flesh literally and to possess it sexually. This sexual corruption is certainly an allusion to the fear of the “Other” or people moving into London from the colonies. The creature in craving white flesh could be seen as a Victorian fear of miscegenation. The average Victorian must have felt that natives arriving in London were not much better than primitive savages and were there to corrupt and destroy their society. The Beetle came along at just the perfect time to feed into these ideas of reverse colonization. This may go a long way towards explaining why this novel did so well originally even outselling Dracula in its day and it also may be a reason it declined in sales after the first World War as cultural fears began to change in the West. It would be interesting to look at how interest in the novel changed over time with cultural value changes.
The reader of the novel also can’t help but be struck by the environment in which the novel takes place. Some of the literary criticism has taken the environment and ecology into account when looking at the novel. Based in 19th century London The Beetle takes place in a crowded and dark urban environment. Much of the action of the novel takes place at night and in the shadows. This idea of the environment adding to the fears of the reader has not been lost on the critical reviewers of the piece. Speaking of Marsh’s work Minna Vuohelainen states “his fiction provides us with phobic readings of monstrosity which are closely linked to the spatial experiences of fin-de-siècle London.”(Vuohelainen 32). Her supposition is that much of the horror in The Beetle is derived from a fear of claustrophobia. London at the turn of the century provided a perfect setting for this type of fear. It was crowded and a constant pallor of smoke lay oppressively over the city. The city was almost a living organism itself giving rise to a fear of being overwhelmed by it at any moment. Onto this backdrop Marsh sets his story of sexual perversion and horror and it created a true psychological mixture that put fear into the audience. I don’t think any of us not living in that city at that time could fully appreciate the gothic novels that revolve around the oppressive nature of London.
The Beetle is a rich nuanced text full of both horror and what would seem like overt sexual situations to the Victorian mind. By today’s standards these seem a little dated and most of the action is hinted at rather than blatant. There is however something to be said for horror that occurs off screen. Our minds are free to create the most intense horror for ourselves, out of our own imagination, and from our own intimate fears. The Beetle creates a world in which the Victorian mind would have felt fear and anxiety. It is a novel dominated by women out of their natural element. Women corrupted by vile magic. This is true of both the female villain who transforms from Man, to beetle, to priestess or the female victim suffering the sexual appetites of the villain and being forced into a transgendered parody of herself. The Beetle is a masterpiece of horror that gives us many different visions of how the Victorian mind looked at sex, foreigners, and the horror of their own backyard.
Hurley, Kelly. “The Inner Chambers of all Nameless Sin: The Beetle, Gothic Female Sexuality, and Oriental Barbarism.” Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Literature. ed. Lloyd Davis. New York: Suny Press 1993: 193-213. Print.
Garnett, Rhys. “Dracula and The Beetle: Imperial and Sexual Guilt and Fear in Late Victorian Fantasy”. Science Fiction Roots and Branches. ed. Rhys Garnett and R.J. Ellis. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990: 30-54. Print.
Vuohelainen, Minna. “Cribbd, Cabined, and Confined: Fear, Claustrophobia and Modernity in Richard Marsh’s Urban Gothic Fiction.” Journal of Literature and Science 3.1 (2010): 23-36. JLS online. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.