I first read Melmoth the Wanderer more than a decade ago, after stumbling across a battered copy I picked up for a few pounds in a secondhand bookshop by the sea. Although its author, Charles Maturin, might not be as well known as his near contemporaries – Shelley, Bram Stoker – he succeeded in producing a gothic horror so mind-bogglingly sophisticated that he certainly should be. I was staying in a bed and breakfast in Suffolk at the time, and in the day I walked along the beach, while my nights were spent in an armchair in the corner of my room, reading the book. I remember it was a warm December, and in the evenings I would sit with the windows open. The curtains would flap and a salt breeze would blow into the room, and as I read I could hear the whisper of a name on the wind.
Maturin was a protestant Dubliner and an eccentric priest, prone to sermonising and fond of dancing. In 1820, he wrote to his friend the author Walter Scott, to say that he was working on a novel so terrifying that it would succeed in “out-Heroding all the Herods” of the German school of gothic authors – Schiller, Hoffmann, Goethe – who were enjoying popularity at the time.
Melmoth the Wanderer opens with a student, John Melmoth, leaving college to attend to his uncle’s deathbed in a house on a clifftop by the coast. John sees a painting of a distant relative on the wall, dated several centuries back – a painting with cold, dead eyes. John enquires about the subject, and his uncle tells him that “the original is still alive … you shall see him again”.
It becomes apparent that John’s ancestor, in proto-Dorian Gray fashion (it is no coincidence that Maturin was Oscar Wilde’s great-uncle) has made a Faustian pact with Satan for 150 extra years of life. However, unless Melmoth can convince someone to agree to take his place, at the end of the 150 years he will be consigned to burn in hell for eternity. Melmoth has all the devil’s powers at his disposal, and he spends his years roaming the earth, looking for someone to take the curse from him, moving in and out of locked cells, floating across seas and continents.
The night after John’s uncle’s death there is a storm. John watches in horror from the house as a Spanish sailing ship crashes on the rocks. He looks across the cliffs and sees a shadowy stranger laughing maniacally as the wreckage is smashed upon the rocks. The next morning, one of the survivors of the wreck – a Spanish sailor – sits with John and tells him his story. He has, he explains, been visited by a shadowy stranger while being held by the Spanish Inquisition in Madrid. After escaping, he comes across a manuscript that details the murder of a woman in the same city. In that manuscript, the woman’s father meets a shadowy stranger at an inn, who tells him the story of a starving man on the verge of murdering his family. The starving man is visited by another shadowy stranger, who offers him food and salvation, for a price. Stories, within stories, within stories.
Melmoth is a gothic matryoshka of fictions inside one another, and the common thread is the Wanderer, moving through every level, never present but always there – spoken of in whispers and hearsay. He is terrifying in his absence, moving through a Daedelian nightmare of narrative strands that twine into one another. The novel is not linear, like “beads on a string” (an analogy he borrows from Aristotle) but instead, like the Wanderer, jumps back and forth – diabolically outside of time.
Although eventually I shut the book and left the house, it has stayed with me ever since. I remember the phrase Melmoth whispers to John on the night of the shipwreck, during a nightmare. “You have burned me, then; but those are flames I can survive – I am alive – I am beside you.”
Adapted from https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/dec/23/melmoth-the-wanderer-by-charles-maturin-a-gothic-matryoshka