A Student Response to The Beetle

Okay, let’s get this started! Upon being the only book of our fantastic four that I hadn’t heard of it definitely intrigued me the most. My mother, who is an avid reader, also had no knowledge of the book associated the idea with The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka until further explanation of the plot line. Published at the same time as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Beetle in fact succeeded in outselling the famous novel for a number of years. While conducting further research, it was stated that a movie based off the book came out in 1919 as a silent horror film directed by Alexander Butler. However, according to many movie discussion blogs it is a “lost film”: which essentially means there are no stills or actual recordings of the movie (available to the public at least- there could be some that have been locked away as part of someone’s private collection and will hopefully resurface some day).

There is no doubt that this novel is captivating for its readers and very rarely flat lines when it comes to suspense. So how come this absolutely gripping novel isn’t as widely known as some of its contemporary counterparts? Could it be because Richard Marsh (even though publishing many other books, some of which were very successful) never had any other notable big sellers? This idea has very little grounds since, even today, we are no strangers to “one hit wonders”. So how come the novel seized to be printed from the 1920’s up until the 1960’s and increasing momentum in the turn of the millennium?

One possible idea was due to the presence of the character of Sydney Atherton: who is a chemical weapons inventor.

I had in front of me some of the finest deconstructive agents you could wish to light upon- carbon-monoxide, chlorine-trioxide, mercuric-oxide, conin, potassimide, potassium-carboxide, cyanogens … I was dealing with gases a sniff of which meant death (102).

The public, still being sensitive after WWI and all the chemical warfare that took place, might have been less inclined to read a book that so effortlessly includes such content. Having a character so nonchalant to the idea of death by gassing. WWI ended in 1918, just a couple years before the books decrease in popularity. However, then the question arises as to why the book didn’t decrease in popularity during the war, if part of it was due to this sensitive subject.

Another possibility could be due to its more modern themes. Regaining momentum for literary critics today with the ideas of obscure genders and sexuality. The main character is a women that is often mistaken as a man. The reader isn’t aware of the main characters sex until closer to the end of book two when “nudity revealed, – that I had been egregiously mistaken on the question of sex. My visitor was not a man, but a woman” (152). The concept of women using their sexuality is a frightening idea to the Victorian mind. Although after some of our class discussions of sexuality I find it a little harder to make assumptions like this. Maybe a fear of women using sexuality as a way to control men is slightly more believable?

His avid addressing of current issues and thoughts that plagued the minds of those that lived during his time of writing make it easy to see why The Beetle was so popular in resonating with its audience. Also the content of the novel (which we discussed in Thursday’s class) makes it clear that it could have stood the test of time. So how come the novel isn’t a must in everyone’s personal library?

I implore some of you to share your ideas as to why this incredibly creepy novel might have experienced a lapse in fame.

Works Cited

Marsh, Richard. The Beetle. Ed. Julian Wolfreys. Peterborough: Broadview, 2004. Print.

2 thoughts on “A Student Response to The Beetle

  1. First of all, I completely agree with you that this book should be on everyone’s reading list. I have enjoyed it from start to finish and have been shamelessly plugging it to all my non-English major friends. As for your question as to why it experienced a lapse in fame, that one is harder to answer. I had never thought about the chemical warfare aspect of it being somewhat offensive to the world after WWI but that doesn’t seem like the only reason a book would lose popularity. I wonder if maybe the supernatural elements of this novel which place it for us on a level with Dracula were maybe just not as frightening to audiences, especially after the more popular “monster” movies and such gained momentum in cinema in the 1950’s. I have to say, the Beetle for me is a different kind of scary than a traditional “monster” from a horror movie and maybe people didn’t appreciate the subtle aspects to the fear in the novel. Either way, I’m certainly glad it made a revival as it’s been my favourite novel of our class.

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  2. I think that the content of The Beetle would have still been frightening to audiences. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) doesn’t include many of the same themes regarding gender that the Beetle does, yet it still has a monster filling in for the foreign Other which would have been frightening for viewers at the time. With this in mind even if the narrative was perhaps frightening or entertaining for aspects of horror, I agree with the OP that cultural responses to chemical warfare would have been a great deterrent against the narrative.

    Not necessarily thinking of film (there was a film produced in 1919), but of audio drama: Drama serials like Suspense (1942-1962) and Dimension X/X Minus One (1955-58) ran narratives with themes touching on chemical warfare from the other side of destruction. I’m thinking specifically of the Ray Bradbury story There Will Come Soft Rains (1950) as a response prototype for a narrative which may have included themes of chemical warfare yet was still well-received. There Will Come Soft Rains examines the life of a house after an apocalyptic chemical event, and acts histo-contextually as a warning against the proliferation of chemical weapons.

    I’m also glad that the novel is making a revival. Not my favourite by far, but it’s a solid #2. I would be interested to know more about post-WWI/II responses to Victorian literature, especially considering this conversation.

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