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May/June 2011
 
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The Beetle: A Mystery, by Richard Marsh (1897)

AN inventor, a statesman, a private detective, a society beauty, a homeless drifter, and miscellaneous Bedouins are among the characters caught in the clutches of a mysterious shape-shifting sex-changing villain, who is by turns an ancient Egyptian priestess, a male mesmerist, and a homicidal man-sized scarab beetle...all disciples of the blood-cult the Children of Isis.

To save humanity in general and one fair maiden in particular, the protagonists wage a battle from Cairo to Victorian London involving murder, public cross-dressing, unholy rituals, "indescribable mutilation," and enough railway carriages and hansom cabs to choke a steampunk convention. Much of the action transpires in specific actual London locations.

The Beetle, published the same year as Dracula, resembles Bram Stoker's novel in its use of multiple narrators, with plot information conveyed in telegrams and other documents. Much of the dialogue is written in 'orribly hawful Cockney dialect, some of this even making its way into the chapter 'eadings! The novel's climax pulls one final switcheroo, with an ending that just might provide a scientifically possible explanation for all the supernatural hugger-muggery.

Richard Heldmann (1857-1915) began his professional career at age 12, writing serials for boys' magazines. He published more than 60 novels, usually under the name Richard Marsh. The Beetle was his most popular work, remaining in print until 1960. Heldmann's grandson was the horror-fiction author Robert Aickman. Newspaper accounts of Heldmann's death were strangely reticent about the circumstances.

—F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre

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