Richard Marsh is really obscure, but he wrote this one book one time you might be interested in. He was a Victorian author, and not particularly crazy, experimental, or genius-y, so like Stoker he has this one book people care about, and then that’s pretty much it. This book is The Beetle. Which doesn’t seem to promise much, right? I mean, it’s a bug. And not a giant one, really. Actually the beetle is actually a priest. Or priestess. I mean, I’m not sure. I guess that’s the point? It’s really vague, is what you should take away from this.
OK, so Paul Lessingham went to Egypt once, got really drunk, and I think maybe kind of slept with the head priestess of a weird cult there. He was drugged for weeks and somehow eventually escaped. All right. Fine. Random, but fine. Except A: he’s in Parliament now and B: the priest/ess came to England to fuck him over. Because, uh, vengeance! For, uh, escaping wrongful imprisonment! Yeah, that sounds good.
The priest is the eponymous Beetle, called so after the insect form she appears to be able to take on at times. She shows up in England, holes up in a ruined building, and makes a homeless guy do stuff for her using hypnosis. He does so, gets caught, a bit, leads people back, but the Beetle’s gone, except not really, except he’s a bug, except really he’s a she, or something? Then she goes to see Paul’s scientist friend who freaks out that she can change into a bug. Except that’s also hypnosis? Maybe? It seemed like a good idea to fool people into thinking she could change into a bug instead of fooling them into thinking God showed up, or she could shoot lightning from her boobs, or whatever else you could hypnotize people into thinking. No, she must have thought, no. Turning into a bug, that’s the thing for me to seem to do sometimes to some people when I make them think that.
Can you already see how fucked up this book is? First, if you hadn’t put this together, the Beetle’s gender is fluid and hard to discern. She appears as a man to some people and some people see him as a woman. And sometimes they see him as a bug.
Of course Paul is engaged to be married and up for a big advancement in politics. Naturally. So the Beetle shows up just in time to screw his life up pretty well. And this is on top of Paul getting freaked out whenever he is reminded of his time in Egypt. That, we learn, happened before the Beetle arrived, but it gets worse when he learns she’s back for him. So he’s pretty much useless in helping out. Naturally the Beetle finds out he’s engaged and starts to fuck with his fiancée as well.
So we have a homeless dude, an MP, an upper class woman, and a scientist, all getting screwed up in the head because of the Egyptian mystic. Do we see where this is going? They sort-of manage to band together, as they piece together bits of the story, and defeat her. Well, of course they do. But what sort of shit does this bring up? Well, that’s a pretty good cross-section of British society, isn’t it? Rich, poor, male and female (well, one female). Professional and monied, that’s about everything. Oh, and the scientist is in love with Paul’s fiancée too, if this weren’t complicated enough. And Paul’s future father-in-law hates him because they have different political philosophies. So this seems pretty obvious. Egyptian power is coming back to screw with the future of British government. This has nothing to do with English involvement in the region, right?
But why the hell is the Beetle a hypnotist? And why am I writing about it here if she doesn’t actually have any powers? Well, first, I think the Beetle is a hypnotist because s/he has powers over the minds of others, just like the leader of a religion should. Paul gets involved with the Beetle willingly; it’s only after she learns some about him that he imprisons Paul. I could make a political joke about quagmires, but never mind.
This book is one of those weird pieces that qualifies as fantastic under the definition of Todorov. Todorov was a Russian writer who defined the fantastic not as a setting that is unreal, but instead the feeling of rocking between real and unreal. That is, it is possible the events of the story are fantasy (in the standard sense – impossible in the real world) or mundane and explainable. Eventually this novel says everything was mundane – though maybe at this point we’d argue that the hypnosis shouldn’t do what it does? Whatever.
Todorov said one of the best examples of the fantastic in his sense was Turn of the Screw by James. And that book’s really good, actually, we should talk about it sometime. But that feeling of possibility is really good, and The Beetle has it at times. There are fantasy novels where characters wonder whether or not there’s a dragon but they live in a place where wizards help control their weather – of course there’s a fucking dragon. You see what I mean? There’s no sense of tension in the setting. If something gets brought up, it’s going to be in there. More rare is the setting in which things are simply presented and we’re left to wonder what they were, exactly. Maybe that was a dragon, maybe it was just an illusion or some other animal or a trick. Or maybe it’s a dragon!
Basically, apart from this book being very strange (and I know I say that a lot, sorry), this is cool to talk about because it screws with possibility. Fun times.