Melmoth is a horror story designed for book lovers. It has old manuscripts, libraries, and a haunting presence you can acquire just by reading about her. Melmoth is the woman who saw the risen Jesus and denied it and is now doomed to wander the Earth bearing witness. She seeks out the guilty, hoping they will join her in despair.
Helen Franklin is the center of our story, a woman living an ascetic life, though it soon becomes evident her asceticism is driven by guilt, not the fervor of faith. She is in Prague, a city haunted by its past. She translates commercial publications such as instruction manuals to support herself. She is befriended by the scholarly Karel and his dramatic, Bohemian lover Thea, a fellow British expat. Karel has become obsessed with some texts written and collected by a fellow scholar he befriended who recently died. He shared the first half of his friend Hoffman’s narrative with Helen in which he shares his shame and guilt about being a German boy living in Czechoslovakia during World War II and the sin he was led to by envy.
Other narratives tell similar stories of complicity in an atrocity or injustice and the resultant haunting by the mysterious Melmoth. Of course, we wonder what Helen did. We also wonder whether Helen actually needs Melmoth since she is obviously punishing herself.
I have mixed feelings about Melmoth. It’s an interesting example of myth-making. Helen’s landlady and her friend are interesting women whom I liked. Helen is an unappealing character. The line between guilty and self-pity is indiscernible with her, though she did rise to the occasion to surprise me a couple of times.
My biggest problem with Melmoth is it never feels of this time. It always feels a bit 19th century. When moments of modernity appear (a pharmacy, an airport) they almost seem out of place. There is a curious formality to the language that makes it seem out of place. Every time I was reminded this was happening now, it felt like a jolt.
And of course, I don’t believe in the supernatural, which makes the idea of reading a narrative about a ghost and then being haunted by her not particularly scary.
I received an ARC of Melmoth from the publisher through Shelf Awareness.