Invisible Ink: No 101 - Richard Marsh
Sunday 06 November 2011
The Beetle was a bizarre hybrid novel of supernatural romantic mystery published in 1897, the same year as Dracula, and initially it eclipsed the undead count's sales.
Hysterical in tone, it concerned the worshipper of a secret Egyptian cult who possesses mesmeric shapeshifting powers, and his feverish pursuit of a British politician. Filled with swirling smoke, hypnotic commands, and weird chemicals, it is told from four separate viewpoints and is really quite unique in the annals of Victorian literature.
But Richard Marsh didn't exist. In an act of prestidigitation worthy of the Beetle himself, he was one of the many aliases of Richard Bernard Heldmann, a high-living swindler who bilked innocent victims all over the country. When Heldmann was sent to jail for 18 months, he killed his real name and reinvented himself as Marsh, then embarked upon a writing career.
Marsh managed 76 novels and collections of short stories, some of them very hurried and poorly written, but there was often an energetic fervour to his prose that has made his editions highly sought after. What's particularly interesting is how many times he wrote about characters with split personalities or false identities who end up in court. The Mask features a lunatic cross-dresser, and there's even a volume called A Master of Deception.
Another recurring theme in the novels is a fall from grace or a sudden massive reversal of fortunes. The author managed three novels a year, published through 16 different houses, and was immensely popular, but The Beetle was his best book. Even in this, Marsh couldn't resist subterfuge, for the vampiric insect is actually an old man in a woman's body who can turn into a giant beetle "with gluey feet". The creature alters everyone it comes into contact with, smashing up the social order. In fact, almost everyone in the novel seems to shapeshift in some way, the most extreme being a smart young heroine who cuts her hair short and dresses as a tramp.
There is an apocryphal story that Bram Stoker made a bet to see who could write the best supernatural novel that year. Why didn't The Beetle survive as well as Dracula? It seems much more of a Victorian zeitgeist novel now, and is saturated with that decade's concerns, values and fears. Seventy five of Marsh's books are out of print, but there's a very nice, cheap Pocket Penguin Classic edition of The Beetle currently available.
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
Jennifer Lawrence attacks mass media again over body image
scienceScientists find the answer to a question that even puzzled Darwin
A very timely Great Train Robbery and a frantic 24 Hours in A&E among the highlights
Geoffrey Macnab: The Wolf of Wall Street's account of white-collar excess is A Rake’s Progress on steroids
arts + entsThe 'Friends' actor on his new role as campaigner on addiction issues
Arts & Ents blogs
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, film review
Brian Griffin returns: Cartoon dog back from the dead in Family Guy Christmas episode
Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber announces he's 'retiring from music'
Nymphomaniac, film review: 'Despite the surreal sex scenes this is a serious drama'
The Wolf of Wall Street, film review: 'A lurid, profanity bespattered movie'
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Fox News presenter tells viewers it is a 'fact' that both Jesus and Santa Claus are white
You can STILL be jailed for being a republican, government confirms, and it remains illegal to even 'imagine' overthrowing the Queen
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
Fighting back: the woman giving a voice (and 49,999 others) to the victims of sexism - by giving an airing to their horror stories
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
- 1 America's 'virgin births'? One in 200 mothers 'became pregnant without having sex'
- 2 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 3 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber announces he's 'retiring from music'
- 4 Children evacuated from swimming pool after prosthetic leg mistaken for paedophile
- 5 Status: Wet - Woman walks off a pier while checking Facebook on her phone
- < Previous
- Next >