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MELMOTH THE WANDERER: Remembering a forgotten Gothic masterpiece on its 200th anniversary

When I say the words “Gothic novel” to you, a few names and titles might spring to mind. First and foremost is probably the groundbreaking Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) – arguably also the birth of science fiction in its current form. Next, perhaps, would be Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897). Then, there’s Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847), Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847), The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde (1890), the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and, for the real aficionados among you, such relics as The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764). One might also include playful mockeries of the genre, such as Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1803), along with a profusion of short stories so innumerable that it would be foolish to try sum them up here. There are of course numerous twentieth century contributors to the genre, such as Shirley Jackson, and indeed older works, such as the plays of Shakespeare – perhaps most notably Macbeth (1606) and Hamlet (1609) – that whilst not technically “Gothic novels”, certainly laid groundwork for the genre we understand today. In short, it’s a rich genre that’s yielded many gems over the years and continues to be reimagined and interpreted by a variety of writers today. I love the Southern Gothic of writers such as Eden Royce (I highly recommend her two collections Spook Lights I & II). I’ve not read Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, yet, but I’ve yet to see a bad review! 

However, today, I want to take you off the beaten track to observe a Gothic novel that possibly stands above all of these (controversial, I know), and yet has been largely forgotten, perhaps due to the obscurity of the writer, perhaps due to changing circumstance and literary taste, or perhaps even due to the cursed and enigmatic nature of its eponymous villain… This novel is Melmoth The Wanderer, published in 1820 by an Irish Anglican curate, Charles Maturin. Melmoth The Wanderer was ostensibly written as a satire of organised religion, specifically Catholicism, but is far greater in scope and cannot adequately be described as purely “satire”, in part due to the sheer horror and power of some of the scenes it describes that climb to the heights of epic.

In my article on How to write Gothic Fiction, I outlined the four key elements I believed were essential to making Gothic fiction work: Mood, Architecture, Religion, Lyricism. It is probably best for me to approach analysing the novel from the perspective of these four tenets, and therefore to practice what I preach!

MOOD 

Melmoth The Wanderer is the most paranoid book I have ever read. Without wishing to cut into the segment on lyricism, the writing style might be described as a horribly compelling labyrinth. Sentences run on, sometimes for entire pages. Just when you think Maturin has lost this thread, he brings his point home, sometimes in ways so surprising and ingenious they’re frightening. The rhythms of the prose in this book began to effect my thought patterns and circadian cycle. I found myself unable to write particularly well while I was reading this book, because Maturin’s infectious prose-style kept taking over my own; it sucked me in, just as our protagonist, John, is drawn into the tale of the eponymous Melmoth. What’s brilliant about this writing style is not just how impressive it is simply for the sake of aesthetics, but also how the style reflects the crumbling and warped psyches of the novel’s characters. For example, here Maturin describes the dichotomy of addiction: 

“When once fierce passion is devouring the soul, we feel more than ever the necessity of external excitement; and our dependence on the world for temporary relief increases in direct proportion to our contempt for the world and all its works.” 

Maturin writes, at times, with savage zeal, but the brilliant thing is he doesn’t just rant with a singular viewpoint. He gives voices to unexpected characters and allows them to air controversial or disturbing viewpoints. He isn’t a preacher, delivering his moral lessons to the reader in fatuous and belaboured sermons. On the contrary, he seems to delight in having characters justify the unjustifiable, and trusting the reader to discern what’s right and what isn’t, which becomes increasingly difficult as the novel approaches its climax and morality becomes greyer and greyer. It is almost as if the novel, itself, is an article of temptation, a seduction to the darkside.

Unlike many Gothic writers, who resort to supernatural phenomena as a way to excite strong passions or escalate the extremity of their novel, Maturin’s novel plays down the supernatural in favour of human psychology far more disturbed and troubling than any ghost could be. When the supernatural does occur, it’s often with psychological cause. Our mind creates phantoms of doubt and temptation, and these phantoms often become literally realised. At times we are unsure whether there are supernatural events occurring or whether we (and our narrator) are being artfully deceived, which thickens the fog of paranoia. Maturin makes conspiracy theorists of all of us. 

In one of the most memorable and haunting sections of the novel, one of the main characters, a bastard Spanish royal by the name of Alonzo Moncada, is forced into a monastery against his will. His time in the monastery is made tortuous by his sadistic fellow monks, who excruciate him physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. Eventually, Alonzo discovers who one of his chief tormentors is on their deathbed. Alonzo seeks to forgive his tormentor (and thereby ease his own mind too), but his tormentor refutes his forgiveness, confessing he doesn’t really believe in God, and that monastic life ironically destroyed his belief. Horrified, Alonzo supplicates him, thinking they are kindred spirits after all – both wanting out of the monastic life. He asks if there is any hope of one day escaping the monastery. His enemy says there is no hope, that monastic life will crush all but “two” types of people:

“…those who can every day renew, by aid of imagination, the hope of escape, and who cherish that hope even on their dying bed; and those who, like me, diminish their misery by dividing it, and like the spider, feel relieved of the poison that swells, and would burst them, by instilling a drop of it into every insect that toils, agonizes, and perishes in their net—like you.” 

The monk’s dying speech is so spiritually amoral that it led to Melmoth The Wanderer being banned in several regions of Britain and some countries. It is similar to the narrative of the men infected with HIV in the ‘80s, who decided to spread the disease to as many people as possible rather than isolate; and of course, there is also a relevant comparison with COVID-19 behaviours today. To reflect once more on mood, the sheer untenable misanthropy of the dying monk’s final metaphor cannot but work on the reader’s mind, just as it works on Alonzo’s. That is Melmoth The Wanderer’s unique power, and we shall see how it is further enhanced by the novel’s architecture.

“Two Old Ones Eating Soup” by Francisco Goya

ARCHITECTURE 

The topic of architecture in this novel is not lightly taken on, partly because it is one of the most complex books I have ever read. There are two sides to architecture as I see it: literal and structural. 

If we address literal first: Melmoth The Wanderer is packed full of many of the usual tropes of Gothic fiction: decaying castles, dusty manors, monasteries, churchyards, asylums and prisons. However, it is the latter two that make up the majority of the novel, and this fact is key to why Melmoth The Wanderer began to fascinate me so much.

Melmoth, our eponymous villain, is a demon of sorts, with powers of translocation and invisibility, among others. His modus operandi is to appear to incarcerated souls and offer them freedom and emancipation in exchange for their souls. The brilliance of this is that Maturin begins to stretch the definition of incarceration as we move deeper into the novel, so that it is not just physical interment, but familial, financial, and eventually, even psychological imprisonment. Linking physical architecture – the trope-settings of Gothic fiction – with an internal landscape of the mind is part of what makes Melmoth The Wanderer so atmospheric and affecting. Dante-esque, Maturin shows us people who are unable to escape the chains of their own behaviours and thought-patterns, and Melmoth himself is an example of such a person, trapped in an endless cycle. He can emancipate others, but not himself. This dichotomy becomes the heart of the novel’s power and tragedy. We begin to feel sorry for Melmoth as he wrestles with his own inescapable destiny. The scholar Chris Baldick observed that “Melmoth is not just a Faust, he is Mephistopheles at the same time” (1989). He is tempter and tempted, and that gives him layers of psychological complexity that even brilliant characters like Victor Frankenstein and Dracula lack. Melmoth is a living hypocrisy. 

To now address the structural architecture is far more difficult. Melmoth The Wanderer takes the Gothic concept of the “framed narrative” – a story within a story – to such extremes that they defy sanity. Mary Shelly artfully gives Frankenstein a triple-layer of narrative: we start on a boat heading into the Antarctic, with the Genovese noble Captain Walton, who then hears the tale of Victor Frankenstein, who then in turn relates the tale told to him by The Creature. The Creature’s story is buried at the heart of the narrative, and the other two stories frame it. The structure is logical and creates many intriguing mimetic effects, which I don’t have the space to discuss here. 

Now compare this with Maturin’s frames: John Melmoth (a descendent of the “true” Melmoth of the title) attends his relative’s deathbed, and is bequeathed in the Will a narrative from an inmate of an insane asylum called Stanton. So far, so good. But then, Alonzo, the monk that I previously mentioned, is washed up on the beachhead near to where John is staying. Alonzo, recognising John as a descendent of Melmoth, begins to relate his own tale of incarceration in the monastery and eventual encounter with Melmoth The Wanderer. During the course of this tale, Alonzo meets a Jewish scholar by the name of Adonijah, who has retrieved several manuscripts describing a tale that takes place nearly a century earlier, a tale in which a young woman, Immalee, is abandoned on a desert island, only to be discovered by – you guessed it – Melmoth himself. Alonzo has to translate these manuscripts for Adonijah, and he is shocked to learn that they pertain to Melmoth and his own situation, so he relates these stories (third or fourth hand?) to the young John Melmoth… This section is referred to as The Tale of the Indians. Within this story, we meet another character, the father to the abandoned young Immalee, Don Francisco, who in turn relates his own story, and in doing so, relates another tale told to him by a mysterious stranger at an inn (The Tale of the Guzman’s Family). Within this story, there is another story buried (The Lovers’ Tale) and so on – you get the gist. 

But the weirdest thing about this structure is less its total insanity but the fact it works. Like Christopher Nolan’s popular film Inception, each layer of reality leads us down to a new more disturbing one, and the deeper we go, the more uncertain we become of what is true, who is speaking, and what it all means. Yet, at the same time, the emotions we feel intensify, as though we’re upping the dosage of a drug. This means that in the latter stages of the novel, the narrative works on us in a way that a more straightforward narrative can’t. Like a dream, it bypasses conscious analysis and plugs into some more emotive and primitive part of our brain, which is what makes it so fucking scary in places, and moving in others.

Through the course of these “descents” we begin to assemble a clear timeline of Melmoth’s life. Melmoth is almost never the main focus of the narrative; he is elusive and alluded to in mysterious whispers and oblique dialogue. He weaves in and out of these seemingly disparate stories, connecting them all. In this way, he becomes far more sinister and compelling than if he’d been “on screen” the majority of the story. Maturin again understands that psychological paradox that what we don’t see is often more frightening than what we do. 

RELIGION 

So much can be said of the religious elements in this book. The entire novel is steeped in religion, with the language itself laced with Biblical and mythological imagery. For example, there is one friar, whose curses are so vile, Maturin tells us they were “viperous as the suicide foam of the dying Judas”. This imagery is sublimely disturbed. The very religiosity of it is what makes it heretical and unsettling. 

Similarly, Maturin’s decimation of organised religion is at once heretical and righteous. It screams into the modern day, but also runs far deeper than superficial modern allegations of corruption and vice in the church. Maturin, himself a member of the clergy, uses his deep immersion in theology to expose deeper spiritual hypocrisies in the church: “The inhabitants of the world you are about to see call this worship—and they have adopted (a Satanic smile curled his lip as he spoke) very different modes; so different, that, in fact, there is but one point in which they all agree—that of making their religion a torment…” We see this reflected in The Spaniard’s Tale, where the monks devote every hour of the day to contemplating how to inflict misery on others and themselves; and in The Tale of the Indians, where Immalee, having been finally discovered by her parents and brought home from the mysterious island where she grew up, is then educated in strict and rigid Catholicism, which retrogresses all the spirituality she obtained living in the natural world without human contact. 

Maturin’s criticism goes well beyond religion, however, also addressing how it intersects with every other facet of human life. Through the mouthpiece of Melmoth educating a wild, young Immalee on human “civilised” life, he offers criticism of 

social injustice and urbanisation:

“those who live in uncontrasted and untantalised misery, can hardly feel it—suffering becomes their habit, and they feel no more jealousy of their situation than the bat, who clings in blind and famishing stupefaction to the cleft of a rock, feels of the situation of the butterfly, drinks of the dew, and bathes in the bloom of every flower. But the people of the other world have invented, by means of living in cities, a new and singular mode of aggravating human wretchedness—that of contrasting it with wild and wanton excess of superfluous and extravagant splendour”; 

monarchy: 

“These people have made unto themselves kings, that is, beings whom they voluntarily invest with the privilege of draining, by taxation, whatever wealth their vices have left to the rich, and whatever means of subsistence their want has left to the poor, till their extortion is cursed from the castle to the cottage”; 

and war: 

“Sometimes exhausted by the monotony of perpetual fruition, which has no parallel even in the monotony of suffering… they amuse themselves by making war, that is, collecting the greatest number of human beings that can be bribed to the task, to cut the throats of a less, equal, or greater number of beings, bribed in the same manner for the same purpose.” 

Maturin claimed these views were not his own in his notations, and perhaps they aren’t, but they certainly ring true to modern sensibilities; Maturin’s, or perhaps we should say Melmoth’s, view is that it is often, ironically, the rigidity of rules-systems that compel us to greater acts of depravity than if we were free and wild and could do whatever we wished. One can’t help but think he would be more at home in our time than he was in his own.

But not only is Melmoth The Wanderer a vehicle for satire and critique, it is also a powerful vindication of religious belief. I spoke about the dichotomy of Melmoth as both tempter and tempted, and the novel replicates this psychological duality in its own theological premise: whilst with one hand it brings a wrecking ball against the walls of the Vatican, with the other, it builds an impenetrable fortress dedicated to the beauty and transcendence of true belief. When Immalee observes a humble woman praying at a cross, she exclaims, “Christ shall be my God, and I will be a Christian” – which instantly banishes Melmoth, where no physical force could. The line that Maturin uses to conjure the image of the fleeing Melmoth is taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) (a line which is, in turn, a reference to the final line of Virgil’s Aeneid, circa 29 BC)“He fled murmuring, and with him fled the shades of night.” This line puts Melmoth on the same level as Satan, yet rather than the touch of Gabriel’s almighty spear being the cause of his flight, it is simply a true-hearted declaration of spiritual belief. 

LYRICISM

As you can see from the length of this article, Melmoth The Wanderer is one of the most quotable books I have read in a long time. I certainly believe a mark of literary greatness is one’s ability to produce quotable work, with the reverse also being true: that bad writers are hardly quotable at all. As my own father, James Sale, wrote in his seminal HellWard (2020), “That poets be oceans; he is a pond. / The final proof? Poetry no-one quotes.”

Melmoth The Wanderer is lyrical to the core. Its imagery, extended metaphors, and prose-styling are astonishingly unique. Maturin oscillates between horror and sublimity with an intensity that Oxford World Classics described as “reckless”; I’m inclined to agree. I can’t say much more about this mammoth 550 page Gothic masterpiece other than it is probably one of the greatest books I have ever read and it has fundamentally changed my outlook on what is possible in fiction. If that is not a good enough recommendation for you, then I don’t know what is. I will say this is not an easy book to read. But, as the subject of this blog (and book) seems to be dichotomy, that is, of course, precisely what makes it so compelling. Like a challenging video-game, it makes us work for its best secrets.

Charles Maturin died in 1824 at the age of forty-four, in abject poverty, just four years after Melmoth The Wanderer was published. Like Keats, he enjoyed very little commercial or critical success in life, and was only truly acknowledged posthumously, and even then, nowhere near to the degree of many of his contemporaries (though Maturin remains very popular in France, where he is revered among the Gothic greats). I am a sucker for the underdog, the reject, and the outcast – the weirdoes working at the fringes. Maturin was odd, maintained odd views, and wrote very odd books. But that does not mean he should be forgotten. Quite the reverse. The oddballs show us the reality of the human condition the rest of us are too scared to believe is real. Indeed, perhaps the reason Melmoth The Wanderer is so quotable is precisely because its leans toward madness. As Alan Moore sadly observed in his magnum opus, From Hell (1989)“Our lunatics were prophets once, and had a prophet’s power.” 

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