The Beetle (novel)
The Beetle (or The Beetle: A Mystery) is an 1897 horror novel by the British writer Richard Marsh, in which a polymorphous Ancient Egyptian entity seeks revenge on a British Member of Parliament. It initially out-sold Bram Stoker's similar horror story Dracula, which appeared the same year.
The story is told from four points of view, which generally flow from each other with limited scene repetition. In order, the four narrators are Robert Holt, Sydney Atherton, Marjorie Lindon, and Augustus Champnell. The story is written down as elaborate testimonies gathered by Champnell, who is a detective and who, despite only appearing during his own narration, provides the context of the antagonists' motives and the wrap-up of how the rest of the cast fared after the adventure. The events described are insinuated to be based on fact and several names used in the novel are supposedly altered to protect the identities of those involved. The year is not given, or rather left ambiguous at 18—, but everything takes place over a three-day period around 2 June on a Friday.
Robert Holt, a clerk who has been looking all day for a place to work, which he hasn't had for a long time, seeks shelter and food at a workhouse in Fulham. He is, however, denied, and in the dark and rain walks on looking for another place to stay. He comes upon a road occupied by only two houses, one of which in terrible state. He finds that one to have the window open and invites himself in. This proves to be a mistake, as he comes face to face with what is later revealed to be a beetle. He is hypnotised into paralysis and the beetle takes their human form again, if covered largely by a blanket; an unsightly man with distinctly female behaviour who is later referred to as the Arab. The Arab accuses Holt of being a thief and promises to treat him like one, though they make clear they have use for them. Feeding him but taking his clothes and forcing a kiss on him that appears their way of feeding themself from him, the Arab sends Holt nearly naked to the home of Paul Lessingham, a member of the House of Commons, to steal the contents of a protected drawer in his desk. If Holt is to encounter Lessingham, he is instructed to say "The Beetle", which should incapacitate him. Despite having no experience with burglary, Holt succeeds, in part because the Arab sees through his eyes and orders him onward. Before he can leave with the contents, letters tied together with a ribbon, Lessingham confronts him. In a voice not his, Holt shouts "The Beetle" twice, forcing Lessingham to shiver in a corner and allowing him to get away by jumping through the window. In the streets, he is accosted by another man, who asks if he committed a crime against Lessingham. The man is pleased by the prospect and lets Holt go, who delivers the letters to the Arab. The Arab finds they are love letters from one Marjorie Lindon and proclaims they will hurt Lessingham through her.
The man Holt met after jumping out the window is Sydney Atherton, a romantic rival of Paul Lessingham for the affection of Marjorie Lindon, with whom Atherton is childhood friends. Just that night at a ball, he proposed, but Lindon told him she already was engaged in secret with Lessingham. Their engagement is a secret, because her father is a political opponent of Lessingham. Moreso, Lindon asks Atherton to speak to her father in favour of Lessingham, knowing that her father considers Atherton as like a son. Self-pitying and angry, Atherton leaves the ball after declining on a dance with Dora Grayling, a woman whom he cares about deeply. It is after leaving that he encounters Holt and lets him go, after which he visits Lessingham to check on the situation. Lessingham insists that it is nothing and sends him away. Even more angry, Atherton plans to spend the next day down in his laboratory working on his inventions towards chemical warfare, but the first to prevent this course of action is the Arab, who introduces themself as a child of Isis. They promise Atherton Lindon's love if he agrees to join forces, but Atherton, noticing the Arab has the eyes of a skilled hypnotist, does not take the bait. They leave and a moment later Lessingham arrives. He apologises for his curtness last night and requests that Atherton does not speak of it to anyone, claiming that he does not want to be bothered by rumours sure to come out of it. Atherton consents, prompting Lessingham to ask him some questions on ancient superstitions and extinct religions, which Atherton has some knowledge on. He brings up Isis, transmigration, and scarabs, eventually admitting he once saw a priest of Isis change shape into a scarab while dying. Atherton is sceptical, but intrigued, but Lessingham retracts his trust and prepares to leave. Then his eyes fall on the picture of a scarab on the shelf and retreats to the same state Holt put him in by invoking the beetle. Atherton snaps him out of it and promises not to tell anyone what he just witnessed.
That night, Atherton apologises to Grayling at the Duchess of Datchet's ball. Their conversation brings them to Atherton's inventions and Grayling offers to finance his experiments, leading to an appointment in his laboratory with follow-up lunch for the next day. Atherton also is accosted by a friend of his, Percy Woodville, who is distraught over the fact Lindon turned down his marriage proposal. Flabberghasted that a third is after Lindon, Atherton drags Woodville along after her to the House of Commons to hear Lessingham speak on the Agricultural Amendment Act. Though impressed with what he hears, Atherton refuses to admit so to Lindon. An altercation is only avoided due to Marjorie's father finding out about her and Lessingham and she walking off with her fiancé with her head held high. Aggravated, Atherton takes Woodville to his laboratory for a demonstration, picking up a stray cat on the way that he fantasizes to belong to Lessingham. He uses a concoction of his to kill the cat, but circumstances have him almost killing Woodville too. He drags him outside, where he is awaited by the Arab. When the Arab ensures Woodville's survival, Atherton lightens up to them and agrees to talk. He barely avoids being hypnotised and shows off his inventions to convince the Arab that he too possesses magic to get answers out of them. The Arab claims Lessingham has killed a woman he was close with back in Egypt. Though eager to see revenge enacted on Lessingham, Atherton doesn't want Lindon to get dragged along and enquires further to why the picture of a scarab scared Lessingham earlier. The Arab denies knowledge and, as Atherton threatens them, changes before his eyes into a female scarab, dwindling from human size into a creature of six to seven inches high and roughly a foot in length in seconds. When Atherton tries to capture them, they change back and their undressed state shows that while they have the face and voice of an old man, the body is young and female. The Arab flees and Atherton gathers a just-awakened Woodville from his yard.
The next day, Atherton is surprised by a visit from Grayling, the appointment with whom he forgot about. He insults her deeply multiple times with comments insensitive to her feelings for him and she leaves in anger. Next is a visit by Marjorie's father, who wants him to speak with her about how Lessingham is not an appropriate match for her. When Marjorie is the third surprise visit that day, he hides behind a screen to spy on the conversation he wants Atherton to start. Unsure what to do, Atherton lets her speak of what ails her, which turns out that the previous day she got a near-naked and starving man that was lying on the street into her house without her father's knowledge. Her reason for doing this was that the man mentioned that Lessingham was in danger and she wished to know more to protect him. Atherton knows it must be the man he saw two nights ago, but keeps quiet. Lindon elaborates that last night, she was attacked by an unseen force in her bedroom that sounded and felt like a beetle. Seeking help from Atherton, Lindon finds herself betrayed when her father steps out from behind the screen and accuses her of madness. Atherton takes her side, causing both Lindons to leave his house in agitated state. The fourth coincidental visitor, then, is Lessingham, who wants to know what Atherton knows given the picture of the scarab and involvement so far. Neither man is willing to show their cards, but they agree that Lessingham is haunted and that if he ensures Lindon won't be dragged into it, Atherton will give him the benefit of the doubt regarding his innocence. Finally, Grayling returns, still wishing to lunch and Atherton accepts.
Once home, Lindon finds her guest, Holt, awake and he tells her his tale. Astonished, Lindon has her servants fetch Atherton because she has no one else to turn to. When he arrives, just done with the lunch, he interrogates Holt enough to confirm his suspicions but distantly enough that he hopes he can fool Lindon into staying out of it. He fails, however, and Lindon insists she comes with the man as they search for the house of the Arab. The three manage to find the house, but it is deserted. Suddenly, Holt becomes hypnotised again and is made to run out. Atherton and Lindon agree that he follows Holt and that she stays in case the Arab returns. He will send whomever he finds on his path to the house to aid her. Only minutes later, Lindon finds that the Arab had hidden under the pillows and is captured.
Elsewhere, Champnell, a detective, is finishing up the documents on the case of the Duchess of Datchet's Deed-box when Lessingham enters his offices to acquire his services. For the first time in his life, Lessingham tells the tale behind the current haunting. Twenty years ago, when he was 18, as an orphan, Lessingham made the choice for himself to go to Cairo, Egypt. Out on his own one night, he was lured by a young woman producing beautiful music and captured by the cult of Isis. Finding himself in hypnotised state in the centre of their temple, Lessingham became the sex slave of whom he came to refer to as the Woman of the Songs, evidently a high priestess. There, he was witness of many human sacrifices, all white women. After one such sacrifice, he found the Woman of the Songs's control weak and attacked her, strangling her until she turned into a scarab. Somehow, he escaped the temple and was found and nursed back to health by American missionaries, after which he returned to England. As he explains his current predicament to Champnell, Atherton, a friend of Champnell's, bursts in to get his help in finding Lindon, whom he found gone upon return to the house after losing sight of Holt. The three men quickly leave for the Arab's house, but all they can find are Lindon's clothes and crudely cut hair. Champnell is the only one convinced she's still alive, as he knows of a case three years prior in which three siblings went missing in Cairo. The brother was found in a terrible mental state, claiming his sisters had been burned to death. He died before providing useful information, but a local claiming to know more offered the police information, elaborating there was a sect practising human sacrifice that favoured white Christian women and even more so young English women. He was killed before he could lead the police to the sect and the case has been unresolved since. Champnell knows Lindon is more valuable as a sacrifice and therefore must be still alive. They go enquire at the one other house at that road, which belongs to Louisa Coleman, as does the Arab's house. She explains she rented it to the Arab, but didn't like their manners and so has spied on them ever since. She confirms Holt's and Atherton's departure hours ago and that Lindon stayed. While she never saw Lindon leave, she did see a man she never saw enter leave a little later, followed after a while by the Arab with a human-sized package on his head. Champnell theorises the package contains merely the Arab's possessions as they intend to return to Egypt and that the man is Lindon disguised in Holt's old clothes.
Acquiring information from an officer, the three men follow the Arab's trail to Waterloo station, where they learn the Arab went on the train with two Englishmen of peculiar behaviour. They got out at Vauxhall and travelled on to Limehouse for a room to stay. As the three men arrive at the local police station, they are informed a man, previously in the company of an Arab, has been found murdered. It turns out to be Holt, whose exhaustion and maltreatment finally got to him. He is, however, still alive and tells Atherton to save Lindon, confirming her to be the other man, before he does collapse. With police aid, the Arab and Lindon are found to have taken a train to Hull from St Pancras Station. They are provided a special train to catch up with the abductor and abductee, but their journey ends in Luton, where the train they had been pursuing has been hit by cargo trucks from a train prior. In the chaos, they find Lindon unconscious in one of the front coaches. As for the Arab, all that remains is scattered pieces of burnt rags and stains which later are identified by only a few of several researchers to be human blood.
Champnell closes his writings by saying the events took place some years ago. Lessingham and Lindon, nowadays an orphan, have since married. He has become a great politician, she his admired wife. They have little left from the terror but a distinct distaste of beetles and any talk thereof. Atherton and Grayling have married too, after Atherton understood the feelings between them. Woodville, Atherton's best man and now the Earl of Barnes, has married one of Grayling's bridesmaids six months later. Holt lies buried in Kensal Green Cemetery under an expensive tombstone. As for the children of Isis, Champnell has heard from good source that during an expeditionary advance towards Dongola, a temple and its occupants were discovered the victims of an explosion. The corpses represented neither men nor women, but monstrous creatures, and remnants of scarab artefacts were scattered around. Champnell declines to investigate the matter further, but does hope it is the temple Lessingham spoke of that was destroyed.
- Augustus Champnell: A detective with knowledge of the supernatural and recurring character in Marsh's works.
- The Arab: A member of an Egyptian cult that worships Isis and the supernatural antagonist of the novel. They use the name Mohamed el Kheir for business, though it's likely that's not their true name.
- The Woman of Songs: A member of an Egyptian cult that worships Isis. It is implied she is the same person as the Arab, though as with much regarding the Arab, not confirmed.
- Paul Lessingham: A member of the House of Commons and a quickly rising star within the British political scene as well as the secret fiancé of Marjorie Lindon. He is the prime target of the Arab.
- Sydney Atherton: An inventor whose expertise lies in chemical warfare. He is a childhood friend of Marjorie Lindon and turns his erratic romantic attention to her during the course of the novel.
- Marjorie Lindon: The daughter of a politician and the fiancée of another one, Paul Lessingham. Due to the two men's opposite views, the engagement is kept secret. She is the secondary target of the Arab.
- Mr. Lindon: A widower, politician, and the father of Marjorie.
- Robert Holt: A clerk without job who makes the mistake of entering the Arab's house and, due to hypnotism, is forced into their service.
- Dora Grayling: A wealthy woman who is in love with Sydney.
- Percy Woodville: A friend of Sydney and fellow suitor of Marjorie.
- Louisa Coleman: The owner of the house the Arab occupies during their stay in England.
The Beetle first reached the public as a serialisation under the title of The Peril of Paul Lessingham: The Story of a Haunted Man in Answers, of which the first entry occurred on 13 March 1897. The entire story was made available over a period of fifteen weeks until 19 June. The novel was published in volume form in September–October of that same year under its remembered title, The Beetle: A Mystery.
Film, stage and radio adaptations
In November 1919 a British silent film, The Beetle, was released, directed by Alexander Butler and starring Maudie Dunham and Hebden Foster. Nine years later, in October 1928, a stage adaptation by J. B. Fagan opened at the Strand Theatre, with Catherine Lacey in the cast. A further adaptation, written by Roger Danes, was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in 1997 and repeated in 2014.
- David Stuart Davies, introduction to Wordsworth Editions reprint, 2007
- Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897): a late-Victorian popular novel, Minna Vuohelainen, Birkbeck, University of London
- Jonathan Rigby, English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema, Reynolds & Hearn 2004 [page 16]
- Jonathan Rigby, 'Nothing Like a Grande Dame', Shivers # 64, April 1999