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Sarah Perry’s Melmoth Is a Gothic Tale With a Conscience

The author's new novel is a brilliant, spooky meditation on the sins of history.

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Sarah Perry’s new book, Melmoth, is an extravagant mille-feuille of dread, disquiet, and fear. Her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood (2014), was an avant-garde tale of a man who drives out of a drought-stricken town to find his brother, but finds himself drawn into a strange house filled with people who seem to expect him. Her second novel, The Essex Serpent (2016), put her on the map. It won the 2016 Book of the Year at the British Book Awards and gathered tremendous reviews from The New York Times to the London Times. It follows Cora Seaborne, a beautiful widow who meets a gorgeous but married pastor in Essex in the nineteenth century. The titular serpent is a Loch Ness Monster–style local legend, supposedly returned to life to snatch goats and terrorize children.

Cora is interested in fossils, in classic late-Victorian fashion. The discovery of ancient remains shook Victorian culture deeply, as the Bible had told that the world was only 6,000 years old. Women were key to early paleontology: In the 1820s, Mary Anning discovered the first ichthyosaur skeleton, a monster rather matching the Essex Serpent’s description. Is the monster real, and just waiting for Cora to make a world-shattering identification and also propel women’s role in science forward? Or is it a local trauma sublimated into myth, providing a convenient way to frame a church-versus-science conflict between Cora and her handsome pastor?

The novel is engaging, florid, and fun. In The Washington Post, Ron Charles wrote that Cora is “the most delightful heroine I’ve encountered since Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.” Indeed Cora is delightful. But there is a faint sprinkling of schmaltz over the romance at the novel’s heart, by dint of Perry writing star-crossed lovers with strong arms and wild hair, respectively.

In contrast, Melmoth, inspired by the 1820 Gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin, is schmaltz-free.* Our protagonist is Helen Franklin: “forty-two, neither short nor tall, her hair neither dark nor fair; on her feet, boots which serve from November to March, and her mother’s steel watch on her wrist.” We are in contemporary Prague, where Helen, a British expat, lives a life of severe austerity. She sleeps on a mattress with no sheets and refuses to eat properly or listen to music. The central mystery of the novel is this: What has Helen Franklin done that she must live like a solitary, faithless monk?

MELMOTH by Sarah Perry.
Custom House, 288 pp., $27.99

Perry withholds the story until near the book’s end. The intervening pages are composed of another mystery with supernatural aspects. One day, Helen’s friend Karel shoves a folder into her arms, before promptly disappearing. The folder contains research into a figure called Melmoth—the woman who denied seeing Christ in the garden of the night of his resurrection. Robed in dark clothes and condemned to walk the earth for eternity, Melmoth the Wanderer appears to people when they have lost all hope and invites them to join her in her suffering. “I’ve been so lonely,” she says, extending to them her ghostly hand.

Karel’s documents span medieval Europe, the Armenian genocide, and World War II Prague. A pattern emerges. Melmoth appears to people who have committed grave sins. A hapless bureaucrat does his government job, pushing paper that will lead to violent, unseen consequences elsewhere. Melmoth appears to him on a beach among the scattered bodies his paperwork has condemned. She is an angel of history, or an embodied, private conscience that attends to the machinery of evil. Individuals are just cogs in those machines, and Melmoth appears at the instant that those individuals realize their terrible culpability.

Is Melmoth real? As in The Essex Serpent, Perry conjures a dark, unseen monster to see what her characters do with it. Of course, a fiend that exists solely in the mind is no less frightening than one observed by science. In this sense, Melmoth resembles a classic Gothic work. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Melmoth speaks the truth. And John Harker’s words in Dracula could be Helen Franklin’s own: “I am all in a sea of wonders. I doubt; I fear; I think strange things, which I dare not confess to my own soul.”

Franklin’s refusal to disclose her own mysterious guilt mirrors the refusal of Melmoth’s other victims to acknowledge that they have had agency in historical atrocities. Melmoth asks a question: Is one person’s crime of equal weight to the crime of a whole society? Does an individual sin in a different way than a government? Either way, sins committed manifest themselves in the human mind as guilt, and it is guilt that drives all hope and joy from a person’s mind. That is the moment when Melmoth in her dark robe appears, reaches out. She’s been so lonely, she says, appealing to the total solitude of the guilty.

If The Essex Serpent mined Victorian history for a legend and worked it up into a romance with broader social themes, then Melmoth repeats that trick in multiple dimensions. It is the story of Helen, but also the story of nations. Far richer than a romance, Melmoth uses the Gothic mode to sketch a psychological model of guilt that scales up and down. Sin can be collective, but it is only repented individually, Perry seems to argue. Half spooky story, half meditation on history, Melmoth revives the Gothic form and drags it through time, into our present.

*A previous version of this article stated that Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer was originally published in 1920. The correct date is 1820. We regret the error.