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Exhibition tells story of Crawley author’s creepy tales

Richard Marsh's novel The Beetle

Richard Marsh

The life and works of Richard Marsh – a celebrated bestselling author at the turn of the 19th century but largely forgotten today – is the subject of an exhibition by University of Sussex researcher Graeme Pedlingham at Crawley Library.

Richard Marsh’s Gothic tale The Beetle1 outsold even Dracula by Bram Stoker (both were published in 1897) while Marsh’s crime thrillers featuring the female detective Judith Lee led to comparisons with Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins, who penned the classic chiller The Woman in White.

But Marsh’s fin de siècle celebrity was short-lived. While Stoker, Conan Doyle and Collins are still known today as masters of their genres, the mysterious Marsh (who lived and worked for 20 years in Three Bridges) and his novels slipped into relative obscurity by the 1930s.

Now, the exhibition – a collaboration between Crawley Library and the University of Sussex – aims to rediscover the author’s work and celebrate his local connections.

Dr Pedlingham, who led the project, says: “Marsh’s reputation as a major author of the period is just starting to be re-established, and this project represents a fantastic opportunity to introduce him as a key figure in Crawley's cultural landscape.

“Marsh was a master of genre fiction, writing in many different modes. Most famously he produced several very popular Gothic novels, not only The Beetle, but also The Goddess: A Demon (1900) and The Joss: A Reversion (1901). But he also wrote comedies, romances and crime fiction, often blurring genres. He was a real innovator in blending the comic and horrific, for instance.

“But primarily he was a writer that was able to produce real emotional connections with his readers, in ways equal to earlier, more recognisable greats of the sensation novel such as Wilkie Collins.”

During the summer the project will also see Dr Pedlingham attempting to discover the location of Marsh's house in Three Bridges while Crawley Library will host, among other activities, a ‘read-off’ between Marsh’s The Beetle and Stoker’s Dracula.

The project is one of collaborative partnerships that form the University’s Culture Rich scheme, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to enable academics and organisations to work together to the benefit of local cultural heritage. Other projects include telling the story of Kent’s “Secret Army”, recruited to help repel a possible Nazi invasion, and the life and work of Sussex-born artist Keith Vaughan and the lives of servants in the Royal Pavilion, Brighton.

The Beetle, published in 1897, is the tale of a shape-changing Egyptian creature that comes to London seeking revenge on a leading MP, which greatly outsold its close rival Dracula (published the same year). In 1910 Marsh's publishers felt able to call him 'the most popular living author'.  Marsh was a prodigious popular author but almost all of his most important work was produced while he lived in Three Bridges, between 1892 and 1911.

Dr Pedlingham says: “Marsh himself was something of a man of mystery: originally named Richard Bernard Heldman, he changed his name around 1888 and seems to have been as happy telling stories about himself as  his characters. He became a forgotten figure after his death but the situation is changing rapidly now, with growing popular and academic interest in the man and his work.”

The exhibition will be launched at a special event at Crawley Library on May 9 that will include music, performances of excerpts from Marsh’s work by performers from local theatre group Pitchy Breath, and discussions with leading scholars. The exhibition continues in Crawley Library until 9 August.

Notes for Editors

Tickets for the launch evening are available from Crawley Library or online at You can also find Richard Marsh on Facebook and Twitter (@RichardMarshNW).

1The Beetle, Marsh's most popular work, was first serialised in 15 instalments in 1897 in a magazine called Answers, which had a readership of up to half a million. It was then published as a novel and featured on The Bookman's bestseller list for six months. The first edition sold out instantly. By 1913 it was into its 15th impression, all the others having sold out. Owing to this popularity, a film version of the book was made in 1919, now lost.

For more information please contact Graeme Pedlingham:

Sample reviews of The Beetle

'Mr. Richard Marsh has, so to speak, out-Heroded Herod', The Glasgow Herald, comparing Marsh to Bram Stoker (1898)

'We cannot recommend The Beetle to persons whose nerves are weak...', The Speaker (1898)

“Sordid and vulgar” The Daily Mail (1898)

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

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Last updated: Monday, 29 April 2013

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