The forgotten horror writer who sold more books than Bram Stoker’s Dracula

A gothic horror author whose contemporaries included Bram Stoker and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is being celebrated at Crawley Library.

An exhibition for Richard Marsh (1857-1915), who lived and worked in Three Bridges for 20 years, was launched last week.

Marsh’s masterpiece The Beetle (1887), about a shape-shifting bug set on taking revenge on an MP, outsold Stoker’s Dracula and he was named ‘most popular living author’ in 1910.

But while Dracula became a Hollywood favourite Marsh was all but forgotten by 1930 and is only recently being saved from obscurity.

Curated by the University of Sussex’s Dr Graeme Pedlingham the exhibition aims to raise the profile of Marsh, who wrote 76 novels.

Dr Pedlingham said: “About 100 years ago he would have been a household name, he was enormously popular. In reviews he was compared to Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens.

“But when we get into the late 1920s he’s disappeared and goes out of publication. It’s only now that people are talking about him and there’s a buzz around him again.”

Almost all of his professional career and most important work was written in Three Bridges. His adopted home even became a setting for The Crime and the Criminal (1887), with a murder committed in Tilgate Forest and the culprit fleeing to hide at a freshments stand at the railway station.

He kept writing up until his death of heart disease in Haywards Heath, dictating to his secretary when he became too ill to write. In fact he was so prolific a backlog of novels continued to be released for five years after his death.

Born Richard Heldmann the author started out writing boys’ adventures for magazines and as a young man developed a taste for the finer things in life. He traveled Britain and France living as an aristocrat on fraudulent cheques and after 18 months Tunbridge Wells police caught up with him. He was sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour and later re-emerged as Richard Marsh, using prison and dual identities as themes in his fiction.

As part of the Summer project Dr Pedlingham is trying to pinpoint Marsh’s home and hopes to get some recognition for the author in Three Bridges. Hawth-based theatre group Pitchy Breath performed an adaption of Marsh scenes on the launch night. Meanwhile Crawley Library will host a ‘read-off’ between The Beetle and Dracula.