Look! Over your shoulder, dear reader, she is coming for you. In her long rough black garments, Melmoth beckons you to follow and give in to her immeasurable sorrow and longing. The gaunt figure in Sarah Perry’s masterful new novel, “Melmoth,” haunts every page.
Who is this creature? According to legend, Melmoth was one of the women who came to the tomb of Jesus Christ and saw him risen from the dead, but she would later deny her own witness. For her transgression, she was cursed to wander the earth until the Second Coming. Eternally lonesome, she seeks companionship among the other men and women who have given in to despair.
It is an old story, based in part on the legend of the Wandering Jew, which has been retold in various forms, perhaps most notably in the Gothic novel “Melmoth the Wanderer” by Charles Maturin, published in 1820, just two years after Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” A golden age for monsters. But Perry has done more than take parts from the Gothic corpus to stitch together some fiend. She has introduced a wholly new creature, a monster suited to our age.
Perry sets her tale in modern-day Prague, focusing on Helen Franklin, a 42-year-old English exile, whose dull and drab existence is matched only by her banal job as a translator of, for example, washing machine instructions. Winter has set in. Jackdaws tap on the windowpanes. After nine years in the Czech capital, she has only a pair of friends, one of whom hands her a portfolio of letters and frantic stories about the sudden appearance of the mysterious wraith Melmoth. Those documents lead to other archives of diaries and confessions that span centuries from early 17th-century England to the Ottoman Empire to the streets of Manila and other times and places where Melmoth has appeared to the woebegone.
Pieced together, these primary sources fuel this sophisticated and delightful Gothic contraption. It is scary and smart, working as a horror story but also a philosophical inquiry into the nature of will and love. Perry did as much in her richly praised novel “The Essex Serpent,” but this is a deeper, more complex novel and more rewarding for the daring reader. And the ending will sap your bones.
Melmoth appears to those who have faced some moral choice in their lives, who failed and who bear witness to their sins through suffering. Those “born to sadness, as surely as sparks fly up from the fire.” Those witnesses who are constantly questioning the reality of Melmoth, doubting their own faith and creating their own private hells. Who hasn’t seen that monster at some point?
Keith Donohue is the author of five novels, most recently “The Motion of Puppets.”
By Sarah Perry
Custom House. 288 pp. $27.99.