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Richard Marsh (12 October 1857 – 9 August 1915) was the pseudonym of the British author born Richard Bernard Heldmann. A best-selling and prolific author of the late 19th century and the Edwardian period, Marsh is best known now for his supernatural thriller novel The Beetle, which was published the same year as Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), and was initially even more popular. The Beetle remained in print until 1960. Marsh produced nearly 80 volumes of fiction and numerous short stories, in genres including horror, crime, romance and humour. Many of these have been republished recently, beginning with The Beetle during 2004. Marsh's grandson Robert Aickman was a notable writer of short "strange stories".
Richard Bernard Heldmann was born on the 12th October 1857, in North London, to lace merchant Joseph Heldmann (1827–96) and Emma Marsh (1830-1911), a lace-manufacturer’s daughter. Heldmann began publishing fiction during 1880, in the form of boys’ school and adventure stories, for magazine publications. The most important of these was Union Jack, a quality boys' weekly magazine associated with authors G. A. Henty (1832-1902) and W.H.G. Kingston (1814–80). Henty promoted the young Heldmann to the position of co-editor during October 1882, but Heldmann’s association with the publication was ended abruptly during June 1883. After this, Bernard Heldmann published no further fiction by that name, beginning to use the pseudonym ‘Richard Marsh’ a few years' later.
For a long time the reasons for the end of Heldmann’s business relationship with Henty and his adoption of a pseudonym were a mystery, with some scholars suggesting that Heldmann was anxious to obscure his father’s German-Jewish origins. It has been discovered recently that in fact Heldmann had been sentenced to eighteen months’ hard labour, during April 1884, for issuing a series of forged cheques in Britain and France during 1883. Heldmann adopted his pseudonym on his release from jail, and fictions by ‘Richard Marsh’ began appearing in literary periodicals during 1888, with two novels being published during 1893. Marsh wrote and published prolifically during the 1890s and the early years of the 20th century. He died from heart disease in Haywards Heath in Sussex on 9 August 1915. Several of his novels were published posthumously.
Marsh's greatest commercial success was one of his earlier novels, The Beetle (1897). A story about a mysterious oriental person who pursues a British politician to London, where he wreaks havoc with his powers of hypnosis and shape-shifting, Marsh's novel is similar in some respects to certain other novels of the same period, such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, George du Maurier's Trilby, and Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels. Like Dracula and many of the sensation novels pioneered by Wilkie Collins and others during the 1860s, The Beetle is narrated from the perspectives of multiple characters, a technique used for many late 19th-century novels (those of Wilkie Collins and Stoker, for example) to create suspense and to confuse gender boundaries. The novel uses numerous themes of the late 19th century, including unemployment and urban destitution, radical politics, homosexuality, science, and Britain's imperial engagements (in particular those in Egypt and the Sudan). "The Beetle" sold out upon its initial printing, and continued to sell well and to be published for several decades into the 20th century. During the 1920s the novel's story was made into a movie, and adapted for London drama.
In addition to The Beetle, Marsh had several other successes in the genre of horror. Particularly notable among these are The Goddess: A Demon (1900), in which an Indian sacrificial idol comes to life with murderous intent, and The Joss: A Reversion (1901), in which an Englishman transforms himself into a hideous oriental idol. An important element of many of Marsh’s novels, including The Beetle, is investigation of mystery, and several of his novels concern crime and its detection. In the novel Philip Bennion’s Death (1897) a bachelor is discovered dead the day after discussing Thomas De Quincey’s essay on murder as a fine art, and his neighbour and friend begins investigating the mystery. In The Datchet Diamonds (1898) a young man who has lost his fortune by the stock market accidentally swaps bags with a diamond thief, only then to find himself pursued by both the robbers and the police. Marsh blends crime with science fiction in A Spoiler of Men (1905), the gentleman-criminal villain of which renders people slaves to his will by means of a chemical injection. Despite his success with popular fiction, Marsh seems also to have aspired to serious literary production, and his novel A Second Coming (1900) imagines Christ’s return to an early-20th century London. Current scholarly research describes Marsh as a writer with a good sense of the literary market but who often transcended the ideological and aesthetic boundaries that his contemporaries established.
Marsh was also adept in the genre of short stories, publishing in literary periodicals such as Household Words, Cornhill Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Belgravia, as well as in a number of book collections. The stories The Seen and the Unseen (1900), Marvels and Mysteries (1900), Both Sides of the Veil (1901) and Between the Dark and the Daylight (1902) all feature an eclectic mix of humour, crime, romance and the occult. He also published serial short stories, developing characters whose adventures could be related in discrete stories in numerous editions of a magazine. Mr. Pugh and Mr. Tress of Curios (1898) are rival collectors between whom pass a series of bizarre and discomfiting objects – poisoned rings, pipes which seem to come to life, a phonograph record on which a murdered woman seems to speak from the dead, and the severed hand of a 13th-century aristocrat. One of Marsh’s most striking creations is Miss Judith Lee, a young teacher of deaf pupils whose lip-reading ability involves her with mysteries that she solves by acting as a detective. Another popular creation was Sam Briggs, whose fictional escapades as a young office clerk, and later as a soldier of World War I, were published by the magazine The Strand during the early 20th century.