"Orgies of Nameless Horrors": Gender, Orientalism, and the Queering of Violence in Richard Marsh's the Beetle

Article excerpt

In Richard Marsh's 1897 thriller The Beetle, dandified London scientist Sydney Atherton tests his own Weapon of Mass Destruction--Atherton's Magic Vapour, which is capable of decimating enemy soldiers en masse--on what he imagines is the cat of Paul Lessingham. A reformist liberal MP who, in his youth, was a dilatory traveler in the Middle East (specifically Cairo), Lessingham is not merely the target of Atherton's ostensible jealousy over Marjorie Lindon, the MP's fiancee, but also the object of Atherton's strong homosocial admiration, even homoerotic attraction. Marsh's novel, most critics seem to agree, documents British imperialism's attempts to imagine as Other the queer, the female, and the nonwhite in order to rationalize their extermination or education (that is, subjugation). Yet the novel's imperialistic impulses toward those ends work both to justify and to undermine themselves: violence directed at the nonnormative only reveals the queer underpinnings of the dominant culture (urban, male, heterosexual, white/British, positivistic). A monstrous and mesmeric insect-like creature of ambiguous gender and indeterminate though definitively non-Western race, the Beetle is a priestess of the atavistic Egyptian cult of Isis who travels to London, as a number of critics have noted, on a project of reverse colonization. (1) The Beetle's motives are personal as well as political. Seeking to seduce and abscond with white British women as a method of "possessing" and subverting British power, the Beetle also wants recompense for a personal injury: her own attempted murder at the hands of Paul Lessingham, whom the Beetle had seduced and held prisoner in Cairo twenty years earlier, as well as Lessingham's double rejection--of the priestess/Beetle as desired sexual object and of the Oriental power of mesmerism.

Near the end of the novel, the Beetle, who repeatedly dominates, probes, and penetrates male characters physically and mentally, apparently dies in a massive train wreck. The evidence (blotches of liquid that seem to be blood from "some creature of the cat species" [319]) might seem inconclusive. Still, the explosion that occurs some time later in the Sudan--turning up debris from an ancient temple dedicated to Isis along with "fragments of what seemed bodies [...] neither of men nor women, but of creatures of some monstrous growth" (319)--appears to imply the Beetle's demise, if not necessarily her eternal extinction. Whereas a number of critics read this climax as indeterminate, we read the Beetle's extinction as being pretty final (as final as others read its escape). (2) Likewise, the novel seems unable, despite its best efforts, to disconnect destruction of the female and the filthy from the homosocial/homoerotic relationships underwritten by those very abject categories. The sublimated (or not so sublimated) homoerotic energies circulating between the male characters (politicians, dandies, and scientists) continually return to the pursuit and/or destruction of the feminine, the nonhuman, and the queer (nonheterosexual, nonnormative). Using London as the stage on which to set these acts of violence a setting mirrored in late-1870s Cairo, where Paul Lessingham first falls under the spell of the Oriental "Other" the novel's panic about the danger posed by the Other, the female, and the homoerotic renders it a consummately relevant text for understanding how these same anxieties circulate through our own era and culture.

In fine, our argument investigates three interconnected aspects of the novel, some of which have been critically examined, others not. First, to what extent does Marjorie Lindon represent the New Woman? How much anxiety does she sincerely generate in the novel's male characters and, by extension, Victorian hegemonic culture? Are there other female characters--Dora Grayling, for instance--who might be more or equally threatening in terms of agency? Might Marjorie and Dora in fact be seen as somewhat traditional, or at least figures whose threatening valences are safely neutralized by the end of the novel? …