Marsh's Beetle Gets Bogged Down

by Arthur B

What do scarabs do when not rolling poop? According to Richard Marsh, they bother politicians.
Paul Lessingham is a celebrated politician in Victorian England, a great reformer turning his exceptional rhetorical skills to the promotion of the common good against entrenched aristocratic interests. But Paul Lessingham has a secret in his past - a secret relating to a hidden cult of Isis out in Egypt whose priestesses are somehow simultaneously human beings with intense hypnotic powers and sinister, oversized scarabs.

One such priestess has come to London to exact revenge for the cult. The story of this brutal campaign of terror is narrated by four different sources. There's Robert Holt, a clerk fallen on hard times who falls under the priestess's hypnotic coercion. There's Sydney Atherton, a mercurial inventor whose puttering about in his home laboratory developing weapons of mass destruction is disturbed both by Lessingham’s troubles and his unrequited love for Lessingham's fiancée. There's Marjorie Lindon, the fiancée herself, who's not up for being frozen out of the investigation. And there's Augustus Champnell, who makes his living tidying away the skeletons in upper class types’ closets. All of them offer part of the picture, but can any of them fully unravel the enigma that is… The Beetle???

For about two thirds of its page count, covering the narrations of Holt, Atherton, and Lindon, Richard Marsh’s The Raven is absolutely exceptional. Published in the same year as Dracula and actually outselling it early on, it actually like a remarkably more modern novel when set next to Stoker’s. Each of the narrators has a distinctive and individual voice; Holt’s tale of personal deprivation and his cajoling into becoming the Beetle’s mind controlled slave reads like a mashup of a Dickensian sob story and an account of “influencing machine”-type delusions, Atherton’s combination of social ineptitude and piercing scientific and investigative insight makes him a memorable detective figure (though in the wake of World War I and other conflict his development of chemical weapons in his home lab seems simultaneously quaint and monstrous), and Lindon is an independent-minded lady who point-blank refuses to be kept away from danger, even if it means she has to climb through a few windows and join in on some breaking and entering to do it.

It all falls apart in the fourth and final narrative; if the first three parts explain why the book became a minor craze on its original release, the limp ending suggests why it lost ground to Dracula in the cultural long haul. For one thing, immediately once her narration ends, Marjorie Lindon’s badassitude immediately ceases; she is captured by the Beetle, is rescued after suffering horrible events which she never speaks of and might not even recall, and then the novel just sorts of ends without any proper confrontation with the Beetle herself. Both Marjorie’s rescue and the Beetle’s escape comes as a result of a blatant deus ex machina - one which seems hardly needed given that our protagonists are right on the verge of catching up with them anyway, and feels like it was thrown in simply because Marsh couldn’t work out what to do when our heroes finally came face to face with their foe.

What had been an extraordinarily original horror story focusing on an extraordinarily original entity ends up becoming a trite damsel-in-distress story, with an explanation of the origin of the Beetle’s grudge against Lessingham reminiscent of the cheesiest proto-pulp fiction adventure story and redolent with unthinking racist and colonialist assumptions. Whilst racial prejudice on the part of the narrators is a feature of the preceding narratives, it remained possible that this was specifically a prejudice on their part; in many other respects, the novel is remarkably forward-thinking - see Lindon’s independent nature, see the way Lessingham’s progressive politics are painted in a favourable light compared to the stuffy old Toryism of Lindon’s grumpy dad, see how Holt’s section is written with all possible sympathy for the motivations of a man rendered homeless through no fault of his own who breaks into an apparently-abandoned home because he has an absolute need for shelter, see how the Beetle’s androgynous presentation messes with the assumptions of the Victorian gentlemen who encounter her (and those she compels to put on similarly androgynous disguises).

Although authors are products of their era, it’s a mistake to assume that the evils of an era were unanimously supported by its occupants, and at the time Marsh was writing there were those who seriously questioned the entire British Imperial project, as well as the widespread assumption that “Orientals” (meaning anyone who lives east of Italy, so far as I can tell) are debased and decadent - but Marsh endorses the prejudices of his time wholeheartedly in this respect, and this is very unfortunate. The Isis cult depicted depends less on the actual worship of Isis and is more like some sort of Shub-Niggurath cult out of some substandard Lovecraft pastiche, and the reduction of the backstory from its early startling originality and mythic resonance to third-rate H. Rider Haggard-influenced doggerel is to be deplored; as well as being racist, it’s also just plain cartoonish and silly.

This reversion to trashy proto-pulp nonsense is accompanied by a shift in the style of the narration. Our final narrator, Champnell, is basically one of those private detectives you get in a certain brand of Holmes-imitating Victorian adventure fiction who is incongruously well-connected, instantly obeyed by deferential middle class and working class sorts, gets to the bottom of any mystery presented to them with ease despite all their peers being stumped, a writing gambit which is especially frustrating when the solution is a complete ass-pull (too often the case with Holmes) or, as it is too often the case here, where the solution is so blindingly obvious that the fact that the other characters don’t spot it doesn’t make the detective look clever - it just makes the other characters look buffoonish. After the preceding three sections, where the interactions between the various characters are actually quite deep and nuanced, having the character interactions largely be reduced to “People are puzzled, Champnell decides on a decisive course of action, people do what he says and are suitably impressed by how clever he is” is absolutely rubbish.

Atherton being bamboozled by the same tricks that fool Lessingham is especially galling, given that up until Champnell’s narrative it’s clear that Atherton ties with Lindon for being the smartest character in the book. This is another aspect in which I find Champnell utterly unwelcome - he simply isn’t needed. It’s clear from Atherton and Lindon’s narrative that by the time Lindon is kidnapped, Atherton’s already put most of the pieces of the puzzle together, and he just needs to apply a bit more social pressure to Lessingham to get him to ‘fess up about what’s happening so that the two of them can tackle the problem. Instead, Champnell is parachuted in (as a result of Lessingham trying to hire him to get Atherton and the Beetle alike off his back, before Lindon’s kidnapping becomes apparent) and rudely usurps Atherton’s position as lead sleuth in the novel - which is especially frustrating when Atherton is right there, apparently suffering from early-onset dementia because suddenly he’s failing to piece together clues he’d more or less arranged and resolved in previous chunks of the narrative.

As I mentioned, the final narrative not only has a far less interesting style than the previous three - not to mention an irritatingly perfect narrator - but it’s also got a shabby ending. You can just about fumble for some closure in the wreckage, but goodness knows Marsh makes you work for it to an unusual extent. The mention of a mysterious explosion that takes out the headquarters of the cult, combined with the mention of Atherton marrying Doris Grayling, a rich admirer of his who over the course of the book is clearly very interested in his chemical weapons research, makes me inclined to imagine that whilst Champnell may have written off the case and declined to investigate further, Atherton kept up the chase, and with Grayling’s monetary resources and own reserves of grit arranged for the bombing of the place. This may, however, simply be the result of me grasping at straws, because Marsh doesn’t otherwise do much to connect these facts and the explosion could very well just be another deus ex machina.

The last problem with the final narrative is how it botches the existing buildup surrounding the character of Paul Lessingham. Lessingham, as a politician, is painted in such glowing terms that he simply seems too good to be true - and multiple narrators note this. Sydney Atherton speculates about him having some hidden scandal in his past, and even hero-worshipping Robert Holt finds himself forced to admit some doubts about Lessingham’s character, and I genuinely thought that the scandal we were going to get was more than the scandal we actually got. This was only heightened by Marjorie Lindon’s narration, in which her regular assertions that Lessingham Isn’t Like Other Men and obviously, given that he’s such a lovely man, couldn’t possibly have any skeletons in his closet; this is something which has been clearly and overtly demonstrated to us as being false by that point in the book, and constitutes the one blind spot in Marjorie’s otherwise spot-on judgement of character.

All the narratives up to this point, in short, have prepared us to expect a major scandal in Lessingham’s past. This impression was only reconfirmed to me by Lessingham’s own narration of his backstory at the start of Champnell’s section of the book. This is not only constructed to make him seem like a pure victim of ill fortune, or guilty of nothing more than a naive lapse of judgement which led to consequences far in excess of anything which could be considered appropriate, but it also stinks of bullshit. The idea that the cult would randomly snatch a man off the streets for one of their priestesses to rape in between rituals and have him just idling about in their temple watching their sacrifices go on when he wasn’t being raped without any apparent purpose or greater role in the organisation is flatly absurd. “I didn’t mean to have a months-long sexual relationship with an enchanting foreign woman, I was totally coerced into it by their wicked feminine wiles” is about as desperate an excuse as you can hope for.

Moreover, his story about how he eventually recuperated and got back on the path to success thanks to the charitable aid of a nice, wealthy American couple, both of whom conveniently die shortly afterwards so as to play no further part in the plot, seems too neat and also rings false. Whilst, based on the rest of the book, I suspect that the characters in question were genuinely only a flimsy plot device thrown in to get Lessingham’s life story back on track, in the suspicious state of mind I had been prepared for some darker truth to be hidden there. This suspicion was only redoubled by the fact that we are told earlier that Lessingham’s entire past is a bit of a mystery - he seems to have come from nowhere to step into a position of power, wealth and prominence.

(I suspect, on balance, that the issue here is that whilst Marsh can write believably about Britain, where he lived, he can’t write believably about Egypt, which so far as I can tell he never visited and his knowledge about primarily came from adventure fiction. As a result, it’s only natural that the sections of the book set in Britain should ring true, whilst the sections of the story based in Egypt ring false.)

In short, I was absolutely convinced that there’d be more to Lessingham than there actually turned out to be, and the fact that the novel lets the other shoe drop feels like an enormous cop-out. Apparently it was originally serialised, and I wonder whether Marsh ended up chickening out of a big reveal concerning Lessingham; certainly, a last-minute change of heart on the outcome would explain the weirdly abrupt nature of the ending. The whole of the last swathe of narration seems to be building to a direct confrontation with the Beetle, which thanks to the deus ex machina outcome is utterly averted; in particular, Champnell’s constant worries about the fraying state of Lessingham’s nerves really makes it feel like we are building to an actual personal confrontation between Lessingham and the Beetle in which his nerves would be tested to breaking point. We never get this; nor do we get a final face-off between the Beetle and Atherton, or the Beetle and Champnell, or even an onstage version of the full confrontation between the Beetle and Lindon. Any of these would seem to be a more natural ending to the novel than what we get, and even the cheap proto-pulp stylings of Champnell’s narrative felt like it really should have been building to a moment where the true story of Lessingham’s sins finally come out, and for Lessingham to be at the very least socially ruined by the experience, and perhaps even to lose his sanity altogether.

The story I suspected that we were going to get, which all the hints seemed to be building towards, was that Lessingham was not a victim of kidnapping on the cult’s part but had been, at the time, a willing participant, at least until he killed the high priestess (the Beetle herself more or less directly states that Lessingham had killed her sister) - and that he’d murdered the American couple to get their money to fund his defection from the cult and establishment of a new, respectable identity in England. Either way, the total absence of any subsequent information to contradict Lessingham’s story, and some features to at least partially confirm it, not only makes his character seem vastly more shallow and uninteresting than I expected, but also makes the plot seem much more flat and formulaic in turn.

More specifically, it makes the whole arrangement of the novel far more black-and-white in terms of innocent (primarily white and British) heroes and irredeemable (primarily brown and Egyptian) villains, and is part of how the final narration takes the steadily mounting evil of the previous three narrations and throws it away in favour of a proto-pulpish, simplistic adventure story approach to wrapping up all the plot threads. It feels cowardly on Marsh’s part, particularly when set against the work of his contemporaries. Robert Lewis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, Robert Chambers, Arthur Machen, Bram Stoker - any of them, on evoking evil to this point, would see it through to its culmination and end, but Marsh flinches at the last point.

A capable horror author producing a story of this sort has a relationship with the reader much like a torturer and their victim; you get the best results by taking the implements out bit by bit, giving the recipient a good chance to look at them and ponder at their significance, before you use them - if you’ve done it right, you’ll barely need to actually use them because the build-up will have done most of the work for you. The crucial thing is to make your willingness to use the implements absolutely clear. Marsh, on the other hand, spends the first three narratives layout out the tools, but then in the fourth narrative balks at using them and quickly brushes them away again. Not only does this absolutely squander the buildup up to that point, but it makes the reader lose all respect for Marsh, and make it impossible to savour the buildup in subsequent rereads or in looking at his other work. Once you know the torturer doesn’t actually have the callousness to use the tools, it doesn’t matter how much they wave them about - it’s an empty threat.

That, unfortunately, is the case with The Beetle. It buzzes about threateningly in its early phases, but where Marsh could have kept up his end and yielded something of Luciferian literary worth, instead he can’t sustain it and he allows the novel to collapse under a mass of then-popular clichés.
Themes: Books, Horror

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Comments (go to latest)
Ichneumon at 03:10 on 2018-06-10
You know, I’d read that Robert Aickman’s grandfather wrote a novel that outsold Dracula, and I wondered about that. Nice to see you covering it, maugre the disappointing ending.
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