Making a brand-new myth is a tricky thing. It takes a deft storytelling hand to weave folklore where none may have existed before, along with a keen eye for little details of horror and beauty that can convince a reader that the dark tale unfolding before them is as abiding as the legends that creep around their own homelands. In Melmoth, Sarah Perry brings us a gorgeously wrought tale that feels as timeless as its title character and as real as the monster you’re sure is sitting at the foot of your bed.
Helen Franklin, an Englishwoman working as a translator in Prague, has a relatively simple and quiet life, and while it’s not exciting, that’s exactly what she wants. Everything changes when her friend Karel reveals a letter passed on to him from an old friend—a letter claiming to reveal not only long-ago sins of history but also a mysterious figure called Melmoth, an eternal witness damned to wander the earth for all time and seek out those cursed by their own sins. Karel is troubled by the letter and the files that accompany it, and he seems consumed by it all . . . until he disappears. Left with nothing but confusion, Helen also becomes consumed by this ancient presence and what it means for her own sins.
The simple premise of a shadowy figure who stalks you and witnesses your sins, even if you’re not prepared to confront them, is the driving force of Melmoth, and Perry doesn’t waste a word of this lean, taut novel, effectively conveying an ever-encroaching sense of absolute dread. The story builds, unfolding layers of darkness without ever becoming garish or pretentious, until by the end you’re happily trapped in its eerie embrace.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Sarah Perry for Melmoth.
This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.