{Book} The Beetle

{Book} The Beetle by Richard March

‘It changes its shape at will. It compels others to do its bidding. It inspires terror in all who look on it…’

Eminent politician Paul Lessingham is the toast of Westminster, but when ‘the Beetle’ arrives from Egypt to hunt him down, the dark and gruesome secret that haunts him is dragged into the light. Bent on revenge for a crime committed against the disciples of an Egyptian goddess, the Beetle terrorizes its victims and will stop at nothing until it has satisfaction.

(via Goodreads)

Hey, finally a Classics Club book that I (mostly) enjoyed! This is not a comment on the virtue of classics, it’s just how it shakes out when you make up a list of 50 books. Some of them you like, some of them you don’t. I managed to pick three “eh” books in a row from my list of 50.

The Beetle was published in 1897, the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Unlike Stoker’s novel, The Beetle was first published as a serial, starting in March and lasting through June. (Dracula was published in May.) It’s said that The Beetle initially outsold Dracula. While one book is about a vampire and the other is about a cult of Isis, there are actually quite a few similarities.

The Beetle is split into four parts, each part a narration by a different character. We start with Robert Holt, the Renfield of this piece. For creepiness, the second chapter of this book blows away pretty much anything in Dracula. Holt is mesmerized/possessed and ordered to break into the house of a politician, Paul Lessingham, and stealing some letters. The second section is narrated by Sydney Atherton, a scientist and fickle romantic. His scientific specialty is chemical warefare. This isn’t entirely science fiction in 1897, but the use of such a horrible weapon was a societal worry. Atherton seems enamored with the idea of killing many people at once… He’s (currently) in love with Marjorie Lindon, who is engaged to Paul.

Marjorie is the Mina/Lucy here; she’s a good woman and everyone is in love with her. The third section of the book is from her point of view and Marjorie is just great. She’s smart, she’s snarky, and she has no time for men driveling all over her. Unfortunately, there has to be damsel in distress and Marjorie is the only damsel around. (She would hate being called a damsel.)

The last section is narrated by Augustus Champnell, a character who hasn’t really been part of the story, but is a friend of Atherton’s. We finally get some information from Lessingham about his past. When he was travelling in his youth, he was seduced by a strange woman who is the high priestess of a cult of Isis. (Queue Victorian Orientalism, not that the book wasn’t chock full before this…) After months of sex and human sacrifices, Lessingham overcame the priestess and escaped. (Similar to Jonathan Harker in Dracula.) There is a surprising amount of nudity mentioned in The Beetle, so maybe it isn’t surprising that it outsold Dracula in its time. It’s now three years later. The priestess has hunted down Lessingham for revenge, and kidnapped Marjorie.

It seems like Marsh wasn’t sure how to end this novel because this last section is padded out with Champnel, Atherton, and Lessingham chasing around and being tripped up by people of lower class. Eventually Marjorie is rescued by deus ex machina.

The Beetle is perhaps most notable these days for its interesting look at gender identity. The priestess of Isis is a shape-changer, able to take the form of a beetle, but also being able to present as both/either male and female. Of course, since she’s a white-lady-sacrificing, Englishman-corrupting monster, this is not progressive. When Marjorie is mesmerized into going along with the priestess (or “Arab” in her male form(?)), she is disguised at a young man—her hair is cut off and she’s made to (gasp) wear pants. When word gets back to our trio of pursuing men that the Arab is now accompanied by a young man (and they’ve already found Marjorie’s dress and her cut off hair), it takes them way too long to even consider the disguise.

For scares, honestly, The Beetle does better than Dracula, but the latter is a much more well-crafted novel. I’m glad I read it though. A shape-shifting Egyptian priestess is a nice change-up.

  • Genre: horror
  • Publishing info: serialization as The Peril of Paul Lessingham: The Story of a Haunted Man in Answers, 1897
  • My copy: ebook via Project Gutenberg

7 thoughts on “{Book} The Beetle

  1. Brian Joseph

    I do not think that I had heard of this before. It sounds like something that I would like for a lot of reasons.

    I find these older takes on horror fascinating.. Musings about gender are also usually interesting.

    Maybe I will give this a try.

  2. Pingback: Classics Club Check-In, Year One | The Writerly Reader

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