Last year, Sarah Perry captivated readers with “The Essex Serpent,” a marvelous mock-Victorian tale about religious faith, supernatural myth and the mystery of the human heart. Her eagerly awaited follow-up revolves around another fiendish legend — not the resurfaced “scarebeast” of that previous novel but the return of a tormented villain condemned to ceaselessly roam the Earth.
“Melmoth” sees Perry channeling Charles Robert Maturin’s diabolical masterpiece from 1820, “Melmoth the Wanderer.” That book’s eponymous drifter was a man who exchanged his soul for immortality in a pact with the devil and then hunted out innocents to tempt into damnation. Perry’s version constitutes an ingenious rewrite: She sets events in present-day Prague, swaps macabre acts for uncanny happenings and, most significantly, transforms Maturin’s itinerant bogeyman into a bogeywoman.
Perry’s protagonist is Helen Franklin, a translator who left England for Prague 20 years earlier. Small, sad and insignificant, she has few friends and many secrets, remaining tight-lipped about her past and the reasons for “her exile, her self-punishment.”
One snowy day after Christmas she encounters one of those friends, Dr. Karel Pražan, in an agitated state. Death, she realizes, has its imprint on him, “like a watermark on empty sheets of paper.” Fighting panic and paranoia (“Is it her — has she come? Do you see her?”), Karel tells Helen a story about a man called Josef Hoffman who died in the library and left behind a strange manuscript. Helen borrows it and reads what turns out to be the first of several testimonies recording sightings of, or contact with, Melmoth the Witness, a woman with black clothes, bleeding feet and eyes “like the slick of oil on water.”
Helen takes what she reads and learns with a pinch of salt. But when Karel vanishes, her life turns upside down. She starts to hear “follower’s feet” in cobblestoned alleys, detects movement in shadows and wakes frightened in the night. Meanwhile, there lurks a dark-robed figure, “patiently watching, patiently biding its time.”
“Melmoth” is shorter than “The Essex Serpent” and distinctly — and deliberately — more somber. Helen is no vivacious heroine: It is important that she be a lonely soul “at the lowest ebb of life.” Perry’s other characters — Karel’s sickly, jilted wife; Helen’s creepy, decrepit roommate — also lack color and vigor.
The book’s Prague sequences are a slow burn, with each atmospheric scene a buildup in tension and a gradual step closer to a potentially shocking outcome. Far more engrossing, however, are the interleaved documents relating to Melmoth’s incarnations through the ages: her presence during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, her vision in 16th-century England, her appearance in Constantinople against the backdrop of World War I — and her lasting impression on a young woman in Manila many years ago.
Like Maturin’s novel, “Melmoth” is composed of various parts. Helen’s story meanders and loses momentum. Those other tales she uncovers, or relates, prove to be haunting, disquieting and memorable, and showcase Perry’s dazzling creative powers.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Sarah Perry.
Publisher: Custom House, 288 pages, $27.99.