Sarah Perry seems to be a writer who refuses to be pinned down. Some of us are careful in our fiction to make sure things progress logically, almost factually. With Perry you’re never quite sure. Was there a sea monster in The Essex Serpent? I’m not sure how this played into my decision to read Melmoth. I knew the title had to have drawn its inspiration from the gothic classic Melmoth the Wanderer, a book I’ve never read. (The internet has, in some ways, taken the sport out of wandering used book stores, where the possibility of finding such things was once a part of their charm.) In any case, I saw Melmoth on the front table of Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, and you learn which bookstore front tables to trust. It was back when bookstores were open and autumn was in the air.
The concept of the wandering Jew (which I address in Holy Horror) is one that has the power to offend. By emphasizing the atrocity of the Holocaust, Perry parries that here while maintaining the concept. The wandering Jew committed some ancient crime and is sentenced to roam the earth until, well, usually the end times. Perry makes Melmoth one of the women at the empty tomb of Jesus who, when asked to confirm the truth of the event, denies what she saw. Condemned to walk the world on bleeding feet, she finds sinners and invites them to join her. Not only finds, but watches—she is the one who sees all your transgressions—and insists that you come to her.
Melmoth is, like the original story, a set of nesting dolls. The frame story contains other documents that shed more and more light on this dark wanderer. Characters must own up to their shortcomings. Indeed, confession is a large part of the story. Although set in modern times, the book is quite biblical, both in sensibility and in some of the plot elements. It even has several quoted snippets from the Good Book. This caught my attention partially because a recent article I wrote (there will be notice here when it appears) suggests that the horror genre goes back to the Bible itself. Those uncomfortable with the darkness may not realize just how much the two have in common. Not all the strings are tied up neatly by the end, but this novel will perhaps inspire the reader to do a bit of wandering their own.