Around this time of year, when the nights draw in and there’s more night than day, I find myself drawn to creepy books. I got more than I bargained for with Sarah Perry’s latest.
‘Melmoth’ resists categorisation. Though marketed as a gothic novel, the reviews I had read seemed to warn me off thinking of it as a horror – but the blurb seemed to suggest that it was. Here’s a synopsis which might explain my confusion:
A middle-aged woman, Helen, lives and works in Prague as a translator. She is undergoing a sort of self-imposed penance for a mysterious crime committed in her youth; she won’t allow herself any pleasure in life, but rather works constantly and sleeps on an uncovered mattress in a nasty old lady’s spare room.
When Helen’s only friend Karel comes into possession of a manuscript which tells of Melmoth, a ghostly figure who appears at mankind’s worst moments, she digs into the mystery and starts to believe that Melmoth has come looking for her to punish her for her own sins.
The power of empathy
Melmoth’s uniqueness in the catalogue of gothic monsters comes partly from the fact that she’s a woman.
When I saw Sarah Perry speak a month or so ago, she said she had deliberately written about a female ‘villain’ because ‘all the good monsters are men.’
Melmoth’s femininity is a powerful part of her effect. She lures her victims by coming to them at the breaking point of their moral compass; when people want to turn away from what they have done in shame, she arrives wanting to embrace them and take care of them. She invites them to go with her so that neither will be lonely as they live on as outcasts. Indeed, this sense of sinister lovingness, of sympathy, is a huge part of her characterisation.
Sarah Perry is very good at asking us uncomfortable questions – and making us sympathise with a scary monster lady who appears during humanity’s worst moments – but at its heart, ‘Melmoth’ is a novel about empathy.
Throughout the story Helen comes across many testimonies of people who believe that they have seen Melmoth at the moment of their worst act. Now, Perry has a vast catalogue of horrendous atrocities to choose from merely by looking at the last couple of decades of European history, but she always chooses moments that are decidedly murky from a moral standpoint.
We are constantly being asked, from behind the pages, what we would have done. If we would have acted differently. If we could have been better.
The answers are uncomfortable – and leave you with the unpleasant feeling that Melmoth might be turning up for you any minute.
When I asked Sarah Perry to sign my copy of Melmoth, she added the instruction to ‘bear witness’:
This had me flummoxed until about halfway through the novel, when another layer starts to emerge.
Melmoth, or Melmoth the Witness, as she is sometimes known, watches humans commit the worst acts of which they are capable. But she isn’t there to punish them.
In the novel we are dealing with some truly dreadful eras of history, even touching upon the Holocaust, and Melmoth is there to represent our own shame. She’s an extension of our collective inner morals.
Where we, the guilty, would try to turn away, she refuses to allow us to do so. Instead, she obliges us to look their crimes in the face and suffer the punishment meted out by our own conscience.
It’s another level to the idea of empathy and our shared humanity. We have to acknowledge that we are all capable of these dreadful things and must look for the common humanity that makes us similar. We must stare our own darkness in the face. We can’t run from Melmoth because she is us; she represents our choices and consequences.
The horror is within
This novel will not have you checking under the bed at night. There are no moments of gratuitous gore or disembodied witchy cackling. So, you might find it difficult to call it a horror story.
Horror is a genre which is is chock full of clichés but even the more original works follow a recognisable pattern. It usually involves a demonic apparition or malevolent human presence that chases down and threatens the life of the hero. There is usually little room for ambiguity between what’s good and what’s bad.
There are plenty of decidedly gothic flashes in Melmoth: the deserted library, the figure shrouded in black, the corner-of-your-eye observer, the occasional blood-splattered moment of real violence and the unflinching, anatomical observation of death.
But Perry isn’t going to let us have an easy ride. Far from giving us the shock-horror satisfaction of a ghost story, she wants us, like Melmoth’s victims, to stare an emotional truth in the face. And the unsettling impression of our own capacity for darkness lingers long after the book has finished.
When Melmoth appears she asks her victims to come with her. Legend has it that she was the denier at the tomb of Christ, and as punishment for renouncing the resurrection she is doomed to wander the earth alone. So when she comes for her victims, she asks them to go with her, because ‘I’ve been so lonely!’
It’s the insidiousness, the allure but above all the humanity of this request which makes Melmoth so terrifying.
Have you read any Sarah Perry? What was your opinion on ‘Melmoth’?