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Invisible Ink: No 101 - Richard Marsh

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.