Melmoth is Sarah Perry’s reimagining of Charles Maturin’s 1820 gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer. Helen Franklin lives in Prague and spends every day haunted by something she did twenty years ago. When one of her only friends hands her a strange manuscript that talks about a mysterious woman in black who walks the earth witnessing the guilty, Helen is drawn into confronting her past whilst uncovering the stories of those who have met this woman. However, Helen can’t help have the feeling that someone is watching her too.
Perry transforms most of Maturin’s book into something different, but keeps the sense of many stories about Melmoth, using inset narratives like Maturin. It must be said, however, that Perry’s are far more engaging and less digressive, with a strong framing narrative alongside the character of Melmoth (something which Melmoth the Wanderer doesn’t have to the same extent). Helen’s mysterious past is a classic gothic plot device brought into the modern day and the lives of the other characters she meets (and those in the inset narratives she reads about) show how everyone carries kinds of guilt with them.
The Prague setting again gives it a classic gothic feel, with descriptions of atmospheric architecture and also of tourists and tourist traps that give an updated sense of foreignness and being out of place, something which often features in gothic literature. The narrative voice is distinctive and strange, fitting perfectly with what it turns out it is doing. Melmoth is less about scariness than about the darkness of moral complexity and escaping the consequences of guilt.
Characters in Melmoth refer to Maturin’s earlier novel as a book nobody reads, and as someone who has read Melmoth the Wanderer, Sarah Perry’s version is a far more enjoyable read. It grapples with moral questions and ideas of redemption whilst using gothic tropes—particularly stories within stories—to create an atmospheric novel that does away with the devil aspect of Maturin’s story to focus on the darkness within humanity.