Tag Archives: Gothic fiction

Melmoth by Sarah Perry: A proper piece of Gothic for our times

Cover imageIf you’re a frequenter of my neck of the Twitter woods, I’d be surprised if you’d not come across Sarah Perry’s third novel well before it was published. Her publishers have been trailing it for months, ramping up an anticipation that was already well primed for many of us who enjoyed both her debut, After the Flood, and her much-lauded second novel, The Essex Serpent. Fans who are as wary of hype as I am can relax: Perry has outdone herself with this chilling slice of Gothic which, as with her previous novels, combines a rattling good yarn with a complex moral dimension.

Forty-two-year-old Helen Franklin has scratched a living in Prague for twenty years. She passes unnoticed, has few friends and dislikes her ancient landlady who scents a penitent. Not long before Christmas, she’s summoned by Karel, the partner of her friend Thea. Karel seems agitated. He’s been left a manuscript by an old man he’d befriended at the city library, a confessional memoir which lays bare the young Josef’s transgressions. Not long after he’s passed the first pages to Helen, eager to be rid of them, Karel disappears. Helen becomes entranced by both Josef’s story and Karel’s research with its many references to a woman swathed in black, reaching out a hand to those at their lowest ebb, desperate for a companion in her loneliness. This is Melmoth, known by a multitude of names throughout the world, condemned to witness the sins of humanity as a punishment for denying the resurrection of Jesus, seen with her own eyes. Helen becomes convinced that she’s being followed, turning her mind back to memories she has so carefully barricaded. As she buries herself in Karel’s research papers, full of stories of human weakness and depravity, she begins to see ghosts everywhere until the one she most dreads appears.

Perry’s novel is prefaced by a memorial to Charles Robert Maturin, author of Melmoth the Wanderer, the nineteenth-century Gothic novel from which her novel draws its inspiration. Like Maturin, Perry nests stories within stories throughout her book – from the young Josef’s betrayal of the Jewish family whose overtures of friendship he resents to the brothers, both civil servants, who coolly help administer the Armenian genocide. There’s a complex moral thread running through her narrative. Humans in their weakness seem doomed to transgress, either on the grand scale of perpetrating genocide or merely looking the other way but Melmoth is forced to witness it all and may come calling, reaching out her hand to those who resist redemption. All of this is couched in beautifully polished prose. Perry transports you to Prague with her gorgeous descriptions of this Gothic central European city which has seen so much conflict and suffering. It’s a superb novel – chilling, clever and immersive. I’m resisting that old clichéd description of an author at the height of her powers not least because after such an assured, original piece of work who knows what Perry will come up with next?

You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann (Transl. by Ross Benjamin): Short but not sweet

Cover imageI’m a great fan of Daniel Kehlmann’s fiction which is why I was so keen to see his first play, The Mentor, premiered in my home town’s Ustinov Studio a couple of months ago. There I was all agog, tickets at the ready only to be too unwell to attend on the night but I gather from H that it was excellent. Consolation arrived in the shape of a new book by Kehlmann, albeit a very brief one – too short to call it a novella, more of a short story. It’s about a writer who takes himself off with his wife and daughter to a remote retreat in the hope of getting a grip on the screenplay that seems to be eluding him.

Our unnamed narrator is writing a sequel to the comedy whose royalties pay the household bills, much mocked by his actor wife in their recurring cycle of bicker and make-up. Susanna’s the one who booked the modern, mountain-top house from which our narrator stares out at stunning views while she and their four-year-old, Esther, play outside. Ideas for the film prove slippery, pressure from the producer increases and our narrator is exhausted. His dreams are troubling – a strange, narrow-eyed woman appears in them, morphing into Susanna, then back again. Rooms shift and change shape. A taciturn shopkeeper hints at strange happenings on the mountain to which there’s only one vertiginous road. Outside the shop, a woman in sunglasses tells him to ‘get away’.  Meanwhile, back at the house, it seems that our narrator is not the only one haunted by bad dreams.

Kehlmann’s story starts brightly enough with a scene from the new film his narrator is trying to write but before long we’re in gothic territory as the narrator stares at the reflection of the living room in a window but finds himself missing from it. There are many familiar tropes here even for those of us who rarely read horror – that missing reflection, messages obliquely communicated, dreams becoming waking nightmares – all adroitly handled so that they’re deeply unsettling rather than stale. Whether Kehlmann wants us to think of this as a parable – a chilling depiction of a man stalled in his writing, feeling trapped by domesticity, expectation and obligation – or as a straightforward piece of horror in the Shirley Jackson mode, I’m not sure, but I’m persuaded towards the former. There’s that face morphing into Susanna’s and the house is the same age as Esther not to mention the way in which it ends. Either way, it’s a riveting read.