‘Oh my friend, won’t you take my hand – I’ve been so lonely!’
This week for Throwback Thursday – which has rolled onto Friday since I’m in a remote part of Wales with poor internet access – I’m going to take a spooky turn and tell you about one of the most terrifying and gloriously gothic novels I have ever read. Melmoth the Witness is a figure from mythology, or is she? Known as one of the woman who witnessed the tomb on the morning that Christ resurrected, she is now an eternal traveller. Wandering the centuries she lures people into following her, whereupon they too become damned to an eternity of itinerant, solitary wandering.
Set in the beautifully, atmospheric city of Prague we meet a woman called Helen who finds a manuscript. It tells of a winter in Prague, with all the darkly gothic details of cobbled streets, shadowy corners, and jackdaws patrolling the city walls. One winter night in Prague, Helen Franklin meets her friend Karel on the street. Agitated and enthralled, he tells her he has come into possession of a mysterious old manuscript, filled with personal testimonies that take them from 17th-century England to wartime Czechoslovakia, the tropical streets of Manila, and 1920s Turkey. All of them tell of being followed by a tall, silent woman in black, bearing an unforgettable message. Helen reads its contents with intrigue and some scepticism, but everything in her life is about to change. We follow Helen’s story, but within it are all the other stories and lives, creating a Russian doll style tale, but where each incarnation has the same sense of menace and impending doom.
This is based on an 1820 novel by Charles Robert Maturin called Melmoth the Wanderer, that very few people will have read. I studied a wonderful module at university entitled The Gothic, Grotesque and the Monstrous and I know from experience that early gothic novels can be long winded and difficult to read. What was found terrifying in 1820 does not necessarily translate today. In the original novel, Melmoth is a man who makes an almost Faustian pact, in this version she is one of the women who visits Christ’s tomb. She could have borne witness to the resurrection, but lied and is now damned to wander the world forever. She’s like a Sybil, heralding evil and disastrous events, but never listened to and doomed to witness the worst humans can do to each other over and over. I love the ambiguity of her pleas to ‘take her hand and follow her’ because she’s lonely, is she friend or foe? Her pleas are all the more tempting because she’s a woman and we associate that with gentleness, nurturing and perhaps even needing protection. There’s also the element of seduction and persuasion that might make a gentleman take her lonely hand. I think Sarah Perry made this choice because of those qualities. How much more effective could a woman be in gathering souls?
I love how Prague is turned into a haunted city and it’s history certainly might have drawn the wanderer to it’s cobbles. The city is the book’s second biggest character, dark and mysterious with magical landmarks like the astronomical clock. Perry’s descriptions of night in the city are haunting, and if I ever visit the capital I might well look over my shoulder when out in the evening in the same way I do in Venice. It is the perfect backdrop for the modern section of the novel, with every inch of the city steeped in history and the endless pull between light and darkness. Perry brings to life fears we have all had, as Helen draws the curtains at night, because she fears looking up at the window and seeing that lonely, beseeching face. The most terrifying thought is that Melmoth bears witness to anything we have ever done, including those awful things we hope no one witnessed or found out about.
I think an important aspect of the novel for me is something any sort of ‘listener’ has to think about. It’s the toll witnessing takes on a person. This book is brief compared to the original novel, but still takes in the breadth of the horrors experienced in Prague throughout the 20th Century. It made me imagine being present to witness the trenches of WW1, the Holocaust, and so many other atrocities and personal tragedies. I’ve worked in mental health for twenty years and I’m taking a break at the moment to study. I know the emotional toll that listening to people’s stories can take on the listener or observer. For Melmoth, this would be so much worse because she has to sit back and witness all of humanity’s horrors. Even worse, she has no power to change anything, but is doomed merely to witness. No wonder she wants other souls to witness with her, she must feel the weight of the horrors yet to come.