A largely forgotten horror and detective writer who created a female Sherlock Holmes and whose novel The Beetle easily outsold Bram Stoker’s Dracula when they were both published in 1897 has been brought back to public attention thanks to the efforts of a researcher at the University of Sussex.
Richard Marsh (1857-1915) was originally called Richard Heldmann but changed his name after a conviction for fraud and lived quietly in Three Bridges - now part of Crawley - for almost 20 years. It was during this period that he became a hugely successful writer of many kinds of genre fiction.
The Beetle, serialised in 15 instalments in a magazine called Answers, tells the story of a shape-changing Egyptian creature that comes to London seeking revenge on a leading MP. It sold so well that, in 1910, Marsh’s publishers felt able to call him “the most popular living author”.
“It’s a real page-turner,” says Graeme Pedlingham, associate tutor in English at Sussex, “full of excitement and urgency, with train crashes, ancient Egyptian cults and human sacrifice. It’s both gory and creaky, and certainly deserves to be right up there with Dracula for fans of horror and the Gothic. Dracula may have more cinematic potential, but The Beetle is more disturbingly ambiguous.”
Equally striking was Marsh’s creation of one of the earliest female detectives, Judith Lee - who, like Sherlock Holmes, first appeared in the pages of The Strand Magazine and is described by Dr Pedlingham as “independent, forceful and an expert in lip-reading and ju-jitsu”.
Dr Pedlingham “first came across Marsh while doing wider work on British horror writers of the fin de siècle” and discovered he was “a great teller of stories” who offered “an interesting lens to look at both the promise and the anxieties of the period”.
He also noticed that Marsh had spent much of his life in Crawley. A grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Cultural Engagement Fund has enabled him to put together an exhibition, The Mysterious Mr Marsh: Crawley’s Secret Storyteller, in collaboration with Crawley Library, “designed to introduce his life and work” but also “to connect him to his local environment and how it featured in and influenced his writing”.
The exhibition opened with an evening of music, discussion and performance on 9 May and continues until 9 August. There will be events with local schools and history societies, while Dr Pedlingham also hopes to translate his research into a biography or literary analysis.
In his own lifetime, Marsh was compared to Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle and Stoker, and sometimes even to Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens.
Dr Pedlingham hopes that his exhibition will help him to realise “his potential to become a major cultural icon for Sussex” once again.