“Staring Eyes” and Ashen Faces: Richard Marsh’s Stifled Scream
As I read The Beetle for the first time over the last couple of weeks, I was increasingly creeped out and “spellbound” (49) by it at the same time. I have always loved a touch of the macabre/dark/mysterious/melancholic in literature. I think what drew me in the most was the complete and utter hold of “panic fear” (49) that the beetle inspired in the characters; the descriptions that Marsh creates are vivid, particularly the numerous descriptions of faces frozen in terror.
The visceral, all-encompassing fear that Marsh’s characters have of the beetle made my imagination go wild. Every character that comes into contact with the beetle experiences a paralysis, not just of body, but often of facial expression as well; each time this happened in the book, the imagery struck me.
I found myself trying to construct the images of the characters in my head (which we do with anything we read), but their expressions of fear and wide-eyed panic inspired me further. I found myself thinking of various images of frightened faces from popular culture. The topmost image that came to my mind, and which resurfaced again when I began to investigate further into this novel and the production of art in this time, was Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893-1910). One description of Holt’s fear recalls the haunting wide-eyed stare of Munch’s creation: “I stared in front of me with eyes in which, had it been light, would have been seen the frenzy of unreasoning fear” (49-50). Marjorie’s face displays a similar expression, a “white, drawn face, and staring eyes, dumb with an agony of fear” (176). Atherton describes Holt’s face when he encounters him in the street: “not a word issued from those rigid lips; there was not a tremor of those awful eyes—eyes which I was tolerably convinced saw something which I had never seen, or ever should” (99).
“The Scream of Nature” was, according to Munch, inspired by a particular experience of his. From an article about the painting on smithsonianmag.com:
Munch defined how we see our own age—wracked with anxiety and uncertainty. His painting of a sexless, twisted, fetal-faced creature, with mouth and eyes open wide in a shriek of horror, re-created a vision that had seized him as he walked one evening in his youth with two friends at sunset. As he later described it, the “air turned to blood” and the “faces of my comrades became a garish yellow-white.” Vibrating in his ears he heard “a huge endless scream course through nature.” (Lubow 1)
Capturing the scream of ‘nature’ in the vibrant colours, style, and striking face of the foreground figure, Munch’s work evokes an emotional state that is comparable to the effect produced by Marsh’s horror-stricken characters. Like Paul Lessingham, in whose “countenance amazement, fear, and horror seems struggling for the mastery,” (76) the figure in Munch’s work stares in unseeing, petrified, “abject terror” (115).
But interestingly, the figure in the painting is engaged in the titular scream, which many of the characters in The Beetle seem unable to do. Rather, they are struck “dumb” (176), paralyzed by the force of the intruding creature, which makes this novel all the more disturbing; how terrifying to experience such a strong emotion and be unable to give it a voice.
Lubow, Arthur. “Edvard Munch: Beyond the Scream.” Smithsonian.com. Arts and Culture, March 2006. Web.
Marsh, Richard. The Beetle. Ed. Julian Wolfreys. Peterborough: Broadview, 2004. Print.