once i realized that the beetle's author, richard marsh (pseudonym for richard bernard heldmann), was the grandfather of one of my favourite writers, robert aickman, i was very excited to read it, and it is clear that a talent for horror was passed down the generations. the novel was published in 1897, just prior to bram stoker's dracula, and i'd say the rather more engaging novel of the two.
horror stories quite often depend on the idea that none of us are safe from random chance. any innocent person might stumble into a nightmare, enter into the wrong place at the wrong time, and have their life destroyed. the beetle relies on this device: in its opening section, robert holt, a clerk who has lost his job and cannot find another, becoming a tramp, seeking and being shut from the last place of refuge he has the energy to strike for, a workhouse in hammersmith. he wanders up the streets, in the pouring rain, starved and exhausted, and then sees a opened window in what appears to him to be a derelict house. he climbs through the window, and finds his doom there: a horrifying skittering heard brings a creature to him that he cannot resist, and a strange person, that he cannot tell is man or woman, who kisses him with swollen, blubbery lips that revolt him, that he wishes he could turn from, but finds he cannot resist. simply by climbing in a window, he has lost the only thing he had left to him: his free will. he is commanded to break into the house of paul lessingham, a up-and-coming politician, who has a dark past that he thought he had escaped, a nightmare that he too, stumbled into, many years ago.
the book is told in four parts, by holt, sydney atherton a romantic rival of lessington's, marjorie linton, lessington's betrothed, and finally a detective lessington engages, augustus champnell.
i enjoyed the first three sections much more than the last: i found the chasing of trains a little rushed and anticlimactic, but also appreciate that chance turns on you, it takes no sides, and might spin its wheel again.
i liked marjorie, but had rather hoped that dora grayling had played a larger part but they are both strong female characters, and the book seems rather open on many questions around sex and gender. of course, we speak of women of fine white english stock -- colonial attitudes as regards race are very prevalent here. a good creepy summer read, especially throughout sydney atherton's section -- the beetle is not the only one to fear in the book.