In one of my latest blog posts I talked about Bridget Collins’s The Binding and how the sheer beauty of the book was what first compelled me to pick it up. I’m afraid there’s a bit of a continuation of that theme this week, as yet again I’m reviewing a book that was partially purchased because of its outward aesthetic. I’m sure it’s fairly obvious to most people that the Penguin English Library collection is undoubtedly my favourite series of books, so on one of my last trips to London I was delighted to find a whole array of books from the series which we didn’t have in the bookshops here in Cardiff. One of those which immediately caught my attention was the vividly stunning yet startling ominous cover of The Beetle by Richard Marsh.
The Beetle is described as a thrilling horror novel which caused quite a stir in the late Victorian era in which it was first published. Whilst the book follows multiple narrators, it is perhaps easiest to describe the book as focusing upon the much respected and admired politician Paul Lessingham. Paul is known for his outward composure and controlled demeanour, yet things begin to go awry when events from his past begin to infiltrate his present day life. Paul realises he is being haunted by the very thing he most wishes to forget. Yet ‘the beetle’, a disturbing creature from ancient Egypt and part of a murderous cult, is far from finished with meddling in the affairs of Paul’s life.
I thought the opening of this novel was really very engaging and well written as you feel disarmed almost as soon as you pick up the novel. We find ourselves in the presence of a man we do not know, who is likewise in a place and situation he himself is far from comfortable with. This man is unaccustomed to the predicament he finds himself in, and this only grows into something stranger and more uncomfortable as we read on, for he is the first victim to stumble upon the evil presence of ‘the beetle’. We do not yet know this man intimately, but the mental battle he must face against this terror is enough to immediately ally us to his cause, urging him on to survival.
From this disarming opening, the novel continues to keep things fresh for the reader with its narrative structure. This is because the entire novel is structured as four different accounts, each of which follows a different character somehow directly involved in the events. This keeps the plot moving forwards and allows us to examine events from different perspectives and different thought processes. Likewise, it also goes someway to further authenticating the novel by the ways in which it presents each section as a different truthful account of the events as each person experienced them. This is a classic trope of Gothic fiction, with the device of trying to authenticate the story giving it much more credence than readers might otherwise have given.
Alongside its gorgeous cover design, one of the things which drew me forcibly towards this novel was that the blurb claimed it actually outsold Bram Stoker’s Dracula at one point. I absolutely love Dracula and have studied it time and time again, so I was keen to see how The Beetle compared as a contemporaneous novel. Whilst the novels are very different in most of the plot and writing style, there are many similarities, particularly with regards to theme. One of these which fascinated me the most was the idea that both novels examine quite closely this fear of what was considered the foreigner, with an almost xenophobic outlook. In both novels the evil entity is wrapped up inextricably with foreignness, and the books play very much so on the contemporary fear of this foreignness infiltrating Britain. After all, we have to remember the contexts of the decline of British imperialism, which left many people afraid that this sense of ‘otherness’ might repay the favour by infiltrating British society. It’s a fascinating theme to analyse and one that makes me want to reread Dracula once again to compare.
Another aspect of this novel which I found could be compared quite easily to other writers of the time was particularly found in the last account of this book. The final narrative section is recounted by Augustus Champnell, a ‘confidential agent’. It is Champnell that the other characters go to in the hopes of finally catching and destroying this evil entity of ‘the beetle’, and I personally found this section to be very Holmesian in style. Champnell is our detective of sorts, our character with the logical thinking and reasoning who uses his skill in investigation and detection to attempt to bring the novel to its conclusion. I think that any Sherlock Holmes fans will certainly enjoy this last section of the novel indeed, with many comparable moments. I for one particularly enjoyed the tension portrayed between the ‘confidential agent’ and the police force of the time and seeing how they operate side by side.
I went into this novel almost completely blind; I had read no reviews and knew nothing about the plot bar the short little snipped of the blurb. I can honestly say that I was blown away by this book and enjoyed it so much more than I thought I might. It really wrapped me up in that cosy feeling of reading a great piece of classic fiction whilst remaining an easy and accessible read which would be a great starting point for those slightly intimidated by the classics. There is just the right degree of thrills and starling moments to maintain its frightful exterior, without being something that sends you to bed in a fit of terror. A truly engaging and entertaining read.
‘The Beetle is the perfect example of why I adore classic fiction so much. Multiple themes combine with a great writing style to produce a thrilling tale which will send shivers down your spine whilst wrapping you up in its contrastingly cosy interior’.
Publisher: Penguin English Library