Sarah Perry’s singular brand of Gothic fiction has reinvigorated a somewhat fusty mode of literature. Both of her novels, “The Essex Serpent” and “Melmoth,” retain the requisite tropes and trappings of the genre — dark secrets, uncanny goings-on, undercurrents of terror — while at the same time delving deeper to unearth pertinent truths about complex issues and heightened states of mind.
Perry has described her first novel, “After Me Comes the Flood,” as “psychological Gothic.” American readers can now discover this for themselves. The book was published to considerable acclaim in the U.K. in 2014; six years on and it finally appears in the U.S. Sometimes the belated publication of a back-catalog work smacks of a shameless cash-in. On this occasion the release is justified and overdue. Tapping into Perry’s austere Baptist upbringing and inspired by sermons on different kinds of love, this impressive debut casts a spell that is at once sinister and seductive.
The novel begins conventionally enough. One hot summer’s day, the 30th in a row without rain, John Cole closes his London bookshop and drives off to visit his brother on the Norfolk coast. On the way he gets lost and then his car breaks down. He is forced to continue on foot through a wood to a large, secluded house.
At which point things become decidedly odd. John is greeted by a childlike woman who knows his name and her duty: “I promised them I’d look after you, didn’t I?” He is taken indoors to meet “them” and discovers that all the other residents have been expecting him. More strangeness awaits him elsewhere. He is shown to a bedroom containing belongings labeled with the name “Jon Coules.” He learns that an Old English word, “Eadwacer,” has been turning up inside and out, scratched on tables, written in notebooks or spelled out in pebbles. Humdrum objects — meat hooks, a glass eye, a defective sundial — appear ominous. Equally disturbing are the letters that arrive with newspaper clippings of floods and drownings. And yet despite his growing unease, and his sense of guilt from being an impostor, John finds he is unable to leave.
Perry infuses her narrative with disquiet and mystery. One moment the inhabitants of the house feel like fully formed, flesh-and-blood creations — whether Elijah, the former preacher who has lost his faith and perhaps his mind, or Eve, the beautiful pianist to whom John is attracted. The next moment they seem ethereal and unknowable forces of nature. In a similar vein, the house is both a concrete, finite space and a hazy, otherworldly realm suspended out of time.
Is there an imminent threat of danger from outside? Is all of this a heat-wave-induced fever dream? Perry explains in her author’s note that her book doesn’t “spring-feed easy answers.” We search for our own meaning while succumbing to her elegant prose and dark magic.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
After Me Comes the Flood
By: Sarah Perry.
Publisher: Custom House, 229 pages, $16.99.