“Even though it can only be legend – you almost think, don’t you, that one day you might look up and see her there?”
Melmoth. The woman in black who haunts both your waking hours and your fretful sleep. She is The Wanderer: the woman who denied the risen Christ and was henceforth damned for ever more, condemned to an endless life of isolation, trudging through the centuries on bloodied feet, looking for other despairing souls to share her infinite suffering. She is the footstep behind you in the street, the shadow on the wall, the figure seen but not seen from the corner of your eye….
Are you looking over your shoulder yet? If not then I promise you will be by the time you’ve finished this book! I picked it up on the back of finishing a collection of M R James’ Ghost Stories, wanting something to prolong the creepy atmosphere that I’d been relishing. The Essex Serpent has been an absolute favourite of mine since I read it a few years ago, so I already knew I loved Sarah Perry’s writing style; Melmoth is a similar mixture of unease, paranoia and an is-it-real-is-it-imagined quasi-supernatural entity at its core. Set in present-day Prague, it follows lonely, unassuming protagonist Helen Franklin, whose life is turned upside down when she is given a collection of documents by an academic friend, Karel. He is clearly greatly disturbed by the contents – and, judging by his haggard expression and anxious glances at the doorway, by something else as well. The testaments contained in these papers form the basis of a story that unfolds in ever increasing layers, taking the reader from Second World War Czechoslovakia, to England’s 16th century heresy trials, to late twentieth century Manilla and finally to Turkey in the 1920s. If this all sounds too scattered and fragmented to come together as a coherent novel, I can assure you I found the opposite to be true. The characters telling their stories all have one thing in common: they believe themselves to be stalked by Melmoth following a decision for which they feel an unassuageable guilt, even anguish.
It’s clear very early on that Helen too has experienced some kind of trauma in her past from which she hasn’t yet recovered. She denies herself all but the minimum amount of food she needs to survive, she scratches her wrists, refuses to indulge in anything that might give her any pleasure, such as music or colourful clothes, and she shuns anything that has the potential to become an affectionate relationship. In fact Karel appears to be about the only person in her life she could call a friend, and even then we sense a certain restraint on her part, a barrier that she is never prepared to let down completely. Whatever her story, the things she reads about the Melmoth legend affect her greatly. She sees the faces of the guilt-stricken storytellers appearing before her, along with another presence – something dark, shadowy and indistinct, which both frightens her and yet somehow attracts her to it. According to the myth, Melmoth’s ultimate aim is to entice the despairing into taking her hand and joining her on her endless journey; this novel is ultimately about who succumbs and who has the strength to resist. The big question is, what will Helen do?
The book is packed full of brilliant characters – not all likeable by any stretch of the imagination, but all compelling and very real. Helen is deliberately enigmatic to start with, but the author gradually reveals more and more about her character through incredibly subtle, skilful writing and in the end we feel we know her better than she knows herself, supressing as she does the parts of herself we suspect she loathes. Josef Hoffman, a boy who writes of his childhood in wartime Czechoslovakia, is both a sad and utterly repellent figure. The man known only as Nameless in his testimony is equally abhorrent, although frighteningly recognisable as an example of the thousands of people throughout history who have aided and abetted atrocities by hiding behind a desk and signing the papers that legitimise persecution in lieu of pulling the trigger themselves. It’s a real bugbear with me that I usually forget many of the finer details of books pretty much as soon as I’ve finished them, so I take it as a sign of how strong the characterisation is in Melmoth that every single actor Sarah Perry puts on her stage is still vivid and alive in my mind.
In any supernatural story it’s extremely hard to get the balance of fear just right, and Sarah Perry does an amazing job in this respect. At one end of the spectrum there’s the intangible but very real unease that sends a shiver down the spine, at times created by nothing more than a bird flying into a window or the ceiling mouldings of cherubs in a library that become grotesque figures “screaming, as if behind the vault their soft fat feet were being scorched with branding irons.” This eeriness runs through the very fabric of Prague itself; the bright, noisy trappings of modern life sit uneasily alongside the old city with its dark passageways and ominous statues, the crowded cafes and lively music failing to mask the malevolence stalking the streets just out of our sight. Then there’s Melmoth herself – how do you describe an entity like this without it becoming a cliched monster, in danger of being slightly laughable? Things are often at their most frightening when they’re unknown, and the author keeps Melmoth out of view for much of the book; she’s a shadow, a footstep or, when she does appear as a woman, her face is hidden. Only when her victims have reached the depths of despair does she reveal herself, and then her hideous appearance is put before us in all its glory.
But of course behind all this horror another idea is at play, namely that Melmoth is nothing more than the manifestation of our own guilty conscience and lack of hope that we can ever be forgiven for what we’ve done. We can only banish her when we come to terms with our past and allow ourselves to believe that we can atone for our sins by positive action. It’s an idea that’s quite common in a lot of supernatural stories – is the evil entity real or is it the protagonist going mad – but I think it works beautifully here, because the novel doesn’t really require a definitive answer. If you want to read it as an “imagine if this legendary creature was real” kind of story, or whether you prefer to interpret it as a psychological character study that explores what trauma, grief and guilt can do to a person, I think you’ll get just as much out of it either way. Equally, I think it’s possible to take it as some kind of mixture of the two. Ultimately though, it’s about revelling in the gothic atmosphere, feeling the chill of being observed by something unseen, and admiring the beautiful writing that makes the ordinary become sinister in unexpected ways.