Twenty years ago, Helen Franklin did a terrible thing. Unable to forgive herself, she lives a life of self-imposed penance, scraping together a living as a translator in Prague and denying herself the simplest of pleasures. But when her friend Karel hands her a strange manuscript, detailing sightings of a tall woman in black haunting the background of human history’s darkest moments, Helen’s fragile balancing act comes under threat. Obsessed with the stories, and unable to shake the feeling that she might be on the haunting woman’s radar, Helen must face up to what she’s done, lest Melmoth emerge from the shadows and claims her as a companion.
A contemporary Gothic chiller, Melmoth,the third novel from author Sarah Perry, explores themes of guilt, mercy, and what it means to bear witness to awful things. Readers are invited by an unknown narrator (for now, at least) to observe main character Helen, following her through a beautifully sombre Prague and trying to decipher just what it is that this pitiable woman is hiding.
Like the classics of Gothic horror, Melmoth is told through a variety of mediums, and is presented as historical evidence of the existence of the folkloric being – a female follower of Jesus who denied what she saw after the stone was rolled away on Easter Sunday. Condemned to walk the earth for eternity, Melmoth seeks out those who do as she did, denying what they saw, and distancing themselves from atrocities they committed. With her feet bleeding and her arms outstretched, she welcomes the guilty, calling them to walk alongside her and find penance in her weary trudge through mankind’s worst transgressions. Three words are repeated throughout the novel, and they never fail to chill with each utterance: she is coming.
Framed by the letters and diaries that speak of Melmoth’s presence throughout global history, Helen’s own story unfolds piece by piece, as friend Thea, landlady Albína, and gentle newcomer Adaya gently coax the tale from her. After punishing herself for twenty years, Helen is the perfect candidate for Melmoth, her self-imposed isolation and denial of anything she might enjoy only heightening a loneliness that the shadowy creature cannot wait to claim.
Perry’s handling of the tale is masterful, combining contemporary narrative with enough of the Gothic tradition to send shivers down a reader’s spine. Beautifully and lyrically crafted, Melmoth – like the titular character herself – both beguiles and unnerves, the tempting prospect of leaving the pain behind tempered by the knowledge that to feel, to regret, and to sin is wholly tied up in what makes us human. After all, how can we learn and move on if we choose to walk away?
Melmoth is a richly layered novel that will likely blossom even further with repeated readings. Atmospheric, emotive, and hauntingly beautiful, there’s so much to explore and so much to savour that it will undoubtedly follow you long after you finish – though hopefully a little less ominously than Melmoth herself.