Richard Marsh is best known for the 1897 novel The Beetle, which gave him the distinction of writing a book which surpassed Bram Stoker’s Dracula in popularity at the time. He had two distinct periods in his literary career, differentiated not only by the name he published under but also by the type of material he wrote, and there was a mysterious period in between about which little is known.
Richard Marsh is a pseudonym used by Richard Bernard Heldmann, who was born in London on October 12, 1857, to Joseph Heldmann and Emma Marsh Heldmann.
As Bernard Heldmann (he always went by his middle name), he began his literary career in 1880 writing adventure stories and school stories for The Union Jack and Young England, British magazines for boys. His earliest known story was “Farnborough Grange and the Boys There,” which was serialized in The Union Jack, followed by “A Memorable Affair at Belton School,” a serial in Young England. His first novels were Dorrincourt and Boxall School, which were published in 1881 after running in The Union Jack. He had three novels published in 1882: Expelled, The Belton Scholarship, and Mutiny on Board the Ship Leander. The latter is an exciting maritime tale that became a bestseller. The final Heldmann novel, Daintree, came out in 1883.
Heldmann was a frequent contributor to The Union Jack and eventually became editorial assistant and then associate editor. However, his tenure at the magazine came to an aburpt end in 1883, for mysterious reasons. Some say it was because his serialized story running at the time, “A Couple of Scamps,” took a supernatural and violent twist – totally unsuitable for a British boys’ magazine. Others say that some “incidents with women” occurred or that he had a violent argument with the co-editor. Whatever the reason, he then disappeared from public view.
Not much is known of his life over the next few years. He published some stories anonymously, which can by attributed to him as some of them later appeared in Marsh collections. The earliest of these are “A Set of Chessman” (1890) and “The Pipe” (1891), both of which first appeared in the Cornhill magazine. It is also thought that he spent some time in jail considering the “insider’s look” at prison in some of his later stories. And he may have anonymously covered the Jack the Ripper murders for various newspapers and magazines.
Around 1886, Heldmann married Ada Kate. The couple had six children, three boys and three girls. One of their daughters married William Aickman, and that union produced Robert Aickman.
As Richard Marsh, he revived his literary career. (The fact that Richard Marsh was Heldmann’s pseudonym was not known until it was revealed in Robert Aickman’s autobiography, published in 1966.) The first published Marsh tale was the ghost story “A Vision of the Night,” which appeared in The Strand’s Christmas issue of 1892. He eventually published over 50 stories in The Strand, mainly romances and mysteries.
The first two Marsh novels appeared in 1893: The Devil’s Diamond and The Mahatma’s Pupil. These were followed by Mrs. Musgrave and Her Husband (1895), The Strange Wooing of Mary Bowler (1895), The Mystery of Philip Bennion’s Death (1897), and The Crime and the Criminal (1897).
His writing was both a reflection of and a reaction to the social issues of the time, such as xenophobia, women’s liberation, poverty, and unemployment. The compulsory education mandated by the Education Acts produced newly literate members of the lower classes, who clamored for light reading material.
Marsh’s greatest success and his best known work was his seventh novel, The Beetle: A Mystery. This first appeared as a serial, The Peril of Paul Lessingham: The Story of a Haunted Man, which ran in Answers, a weekly magazine, from March 13, 1897, through June 19, 1897. The story was then published in book form by Skeffington & Son in September 1897, three months after Dracula appeared.
The Beetle is told in memoir form by various narrators. It is the story of a supernatural creature known as the Beetle, who is one of the Children of Isis, an Egyptian sect dealing in human sacrifice and magical powers. The story begins in 1890s London, where an unemployed man breaks into a seemingly deserted house and is attacked by a slimy, damp, foul-smelling creature that sticks to him with numerous legs. The main story is that of Paul Lessingham, a Member of Parliament. In his youth, he had been kidnapped in Egypt and imprisoned in a temple where he witnessed orgies and human sacrifices and was sexually assaulted by a priestess of Isis. When he strangled the priestess, she turned into a giant beetle, which, years later, followed him to London. The Beetle proceeded to terrorize Lessingham, his fiancee, and others.
Marsh published about 50 more novels, from 1897 through 1920, but none were as well known as The Beetle. Among these novels are some weird stories. Tom Ossington’s Ghost (1898) is about a haunted house with buried treasure. A Spoiler of Men (1905) tells of a mad scientist and what he does to the men who get in his way. The Goddess: A Demon (1900) is about a “Hindoo” idol with a body made up of knives, who skewers her victims.
After the success of The Beetle, publishers started issuing collections of his earlier stories. The first was Curios (1898). Among the stories in this collection is “The Adventure of Lady Wishaw’s Hand.” This takes the familiar story of a disembodied, animated hand in a different direction by having the hand attached to an invisible, malevolent body. This collection was quickly followed by three others: Marvels and Mysteries (1900), The Seen and the Unseen (1900), and Both Sides of the Veil (1901), all of which include mystery and crime stories in addition to horror and the supernatural.
After the early 1900s, Marsh moved on to crime, detective, and romance stories.
Marsh died of heart failure on August 9, 1915, in the family home at Haywards Heath, England. At the time, he was working as prolifically as ever, and ten books were published after his death.
The Beetle is readily available in print and as free downloads, as are several other books. Citing the difficulty of finding Marsh’s short stories, Ash-Tree Press published The Haunted Chair and Other Stories in 1997, which collects 18 of Marsh’s stories. Unfortunately, this book is out of print, so the stories are again difficult to find.
Special thanks to Tom Whitehead, Special Collections, Temple University Libraries.
He did, in fact, spend time in prison – in April 1884 he was tried and found guilty of obtaining goods/money by false pretences, and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment with hard labour.
One of his daughters died in infancy and a son was killed in the First World War.