MELMOTH THE WANDERER by Charles Robert Maturin (2001, Penguin Classics)
“#8 Melmoth the Wanderer. The greatest of the Gothic novels, proving that Gothic and psychological horrors are doubly effective when combined.”
– Karl Edward Wagner, “13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels” (Twilight Zone Magazine, 1983)
Where do I begin with this one? To say I’ve been working on it thirty years plus would be bragging. I first encountered Melmoth in HP Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, where he praised it to the rafters. I spent a summer working as a delivery man while in college, so I read the first part of Melmoth in the cab of a truck. This time around, I was working a part-time job on the graveyard shift, where I read the novel at 2AM while trying to fight sleep (always the optimum way to experience Gothic novels). And I finished it at the dentist’s office.
Melmoth is the story of a man named Melmoth who has somehow extended his life by 150 years. It’s never said how he did it, but the assumption is that he made a pact with Satan. The only way Melmoth can escape the pact is to find someone to take his place. This situation forms the narrative of the book.
The novel was written in 1820 by an Irish clergyman, who never saw any success from it (he died a few years after it was published). Since it’s written at the time of the Romantic revival, Melmoth is outside of the great Gothic wave. However, these post-Goth writers did love to use their words. They never let one sentence suffice when an entire page would do. For instance, here is a passage I have pulled from the manuscript at random:
She was thus employed on the eighth morning, when she saw the stranger approach; and the wild and innocent delight with which she bounded towards him, excited in him for a moment a feeling of gloomy and reluctant compunction, which Immalee’s quick susceptibility traced in his pausing step and averted eye. She stood trembling in lovely and pleading diffidence, as if intreating pardon for an unconscious offence, and asking permission to approach by the very attitude in which she forbore it, while tears stood in her eyes ready to fall at another repelling motion.
And that’s just two sentences. Try enduring 600 pages of this prose.
Melmoth is actually a series of stories within stories. Such a style of writing is not new; Arabian Nights used this technique. The 1965 Polish film Saragossa Manuscript also utilized the same method. It’s a good style to keep the reader engaged, but you can get lost in the narratives.
Melmoth links all the stories together with a mysterious wanderer who appears at a crucial time in someone’s life. He makes them an offer they can’t refuse. Whenever he appears, the subject of the story is at the lowest point in their life, usually near death. Melmoth’s offer will take them out of the horrid situation, but at the cost of their soul.
The first tale is that of John Melmoth, a college student who travels to the home of his uncle and benefactor. Here he learns of his fabled ancestor who appears at dire moments in the history of the family. The description of his uncle’s wretched genteel poverty is one of the best sections of the novel. The younger Melmoth soon locates a manuscript among his deceased uncle’s papers which tells of the adventures abroad of an Englishman named Stanton after the Restoration. Stanton has several encounters with the wanderer, one of them in a lunatic asylum. John Melmoth next encounters a Spaniard who tells him the story of a nobleman forced to become a monk. The wanderer appears when the monk is imprisoned by the Inquisition. Escaping from the cells of the Inquisition, the monk takes refuge with a Spanish Jew who shows him a manuscript describing the wanderer’s encounter with a noble Spanish Christian family. The wanderer succeeds in wedding the daughter of the family, only to bring her tragedy. Melmoth concludes with the wanderer making his final appearance to John Melmoth.
My one-paragraph summary of the novel only skims the basics of the complicated plot. There’s a whole passage where Melmoth encounters a jungle girl on an island off the coast of India. Hard to say, but I can’t help but wonder if this passage inspired both The Jungle Book and Tarzan. The description of the prisons of the Inquisitions out-goths anything Edgar Allan Poe wrote. But I should also mention Maturin’s anti-catholic church diatribes are excessive to the point of parody.
Melmoth is a crucial book in the development of Gothic horror literature. If the reader can endure the prose, it’s a good tale.
Wasn’t Sebastian Melmoth Oscar Wilde’s alter ego, when he went into exile in France?
Indeed it was! I think Wilde felt a lot like Melmoth during those times.
The Saragossa Manuscript is based on a novel by a chap named Potocki available in translation in Penguin Classics. The contemporary English novelist David Mitchell specialises in ‘story in story’ narratives.
More authors to check out….