Melmoth the Wanderer and the bizarre appeal of gothic horror.
I have long been a rather reluctant fan of gothic horror. The reluctance comes from never quite knowing if it’s a genre worth caring about. How well, really, do any of my favorite works hold up? Is The Castle of Otranto actually good, or just campy? Is The Monk great literature? Probably not—but as genres go, there’s none quite so pleasingly ridiculous as this one.
Gothic horror usually revolves around the sinister absence of God inside some religious framework. These are stories that couldn’t exist outside a culture obsessed with sin and hellfire, and yet they’re not morality tales: the only lesson to be drawn from most gothic romances is that the supernatural can be easily substituted for the divine. Any benefits to leading a religious life seem to be completely erased in these stories, with paranoia and persecution complexes to take their place. There seems barely time to contemplate the afterlife when everyone’s so busy trying to escape the traps laid for them on earth—traps set by heredity and fate. The “good” characters are, for the most part, idiots: foolish clergyman, one-dimensional lovers doomed to die horrible (sometimes cannibalistic) deaths, and so on. The only character with any power of personality happens, more often than not, to be the devil himself.
This is especially true of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, a shapeless tale of transformation, loneliness, and evil as shown in complete isolation from good. Maturin, an Irish clergyman and great-uncle to Oscar Wilde, wrote the book in 1820, at the height of the vogue for gothic romance. By the end of the nineteenth century, the book had taken on cult status. Baudelaire adored it. Balzac wrote a sequel to it. Wilde himself, after being released in disgrace from Reading Gaol, based his entire identity around his uncle’s story, renaming himself after its hero, Sebastian Melmoth. What was it in the story that spoke to them so deeply?
Melmoth’s plot models itself after Faust, the urtext that provided the outline of all great gothic horror to come, in which an unholy trade is made on earth that bars entry to heaven. Maturin’s novel brought the genre into a sort of imperfect maturity according to the late Victorians and early Edwardians, most notably H. P. Lovecraft, who, in his discussion of the genre, found in it “a pulse of power undiscoverable in any previous work of this kind—a kinship to the essential truth of human nature, an understanding of the profoundest sources of actual cosmic fear, and a white heat of sympathetic passion on the writer’s part which makes the book a true document of aesthetic self-expression rather than a mere clever compound of artifice.”
Melmoth opens with a deathbed scene: The young John Melmoth leaves Trinity College to attend the bedside of his dying uncle, a superstitious miser. Young Melmoth happens to see a portrait of one of his ancestors, dated 1646. When his uncle learns of his interest in the painting, he tells him that “the original is still alive”: “You shall see him again,” he says before dying.
There are many things about this scene that feel familiar in retrospect. The portrait, the equation of agelessness with evil, the quiet foreboding: by these traits alone it becomes clear that Wilde’s only novel could not have existed without its campy predecessor. But while Dorian Gray desired eternal youth, Melmoth’s immortality—he’s sold his soul to the devil for another 150 years of life—is a burden. He moves restlessly around the world, trying to foist it onto someone else.
Melmoth’s third-person narrator is reliable, but the manuscript—the book-within-the-book written by an observer about Melmoth’s travels, from which we get most of our information, inside of the John Melmoth framing device—is not. It is in extreme disrepair when John finds it, “dissolved, obliterated, and mutilated beyond any that had ever before exercised the patience of a reader.” It’s basically unreadable, breaking off sometimes at midsentence, a device which allows the second narrator (whose voice is suspiciously like the primary) to propel us at an instant into a ridiculous part of the drama without needing to situate it inside the story. In this manuscript, the man in the portrait is referred to as “The Englishman,” though he is a man without a country, born in Ireland, and having spent so much time on “the Continent” that his family in Dublin despaired of ever seeing him again.
But Melmoth is a bit of a false devil, interesting only in that he is indecipherable. His motives are so inexplicable that they must belong to an idea of pure evil—as when he convinces a woman he’s seduced to swear her love for him and then damns her. He seems to be a satanic character without all that much nuance—he has neither the humor of a Mephisto nor the charm of a Dorian Gray, nor the overwrought, outright campy qualities of Matthew Lewis’s monk. In fact, Melmoth is more an action hero than a horror villain. He is defined by his movements, by the fact that he is, like the cyber-villains of Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars, everywhere and nowhere.
And this archetype—the faceless villain whose evil stems from a great burden of personality—is perhaps the only aspect of gothic horror that carries over into present-day storytelling. It makes sense, in this light, that Wilde would have so deeply identified with the character. The devil in exile: shunned, doomed, unable to shift his burden, unable to be anything but himself, unable to transfer his personality onto anyone else.
Wilde famously pissed off Henry James at their first meeting by claiming that he had no nationality but was rather “a citizen of the world.” For James, a writer obsessed with place, this was nothing less than an affront. Wilde made enemies in conversation throughout his entire life, and ended his life in complete exile. Melmoth, as a character, feels like a prediction of how his story would end.
Richard Ellmann writes, in his biography of Wilde, of the author’s last days in France, living in exile and poverty:
Wilde, no doubt pining for his sons, invited fifteen small boys of the neighborhood, along with with cure, the postman, the schoolmaster, and other local worthies. He got Bonnet to decorate the banqueting room at the Hotel de la Plage with colored lamps and English flags. The children were given strawberries and cream, apricots, chocolates, cakes, and grenadine syrup. A huge iced cake bore the words “Jubile de la Reine Victoria,” in pink sugar rosetted with green, encircled by a great wreath of red roses. Each child was allowed to choose a present; six chose accordions, five trumpets and four bugles. The postman got an accordion. They sang the “Marseillaise,” danced a rondo, sang “God Save the Queen.” Wilde proposed a toast to the Queen, then to France as “la mere de touts les artistes,” and finally to the President de la Republique, after which the children cried, “Vivent le President de la Republique et M. Melmoth.”
Perhaps Wilde never hoped to find anonymity in France. In the seemingly inherited sense of doom passed on from his uncle, he found a way to live. He made Melmoth his own. In the final assessment, that’s really the greatest pleasure of the gothic—stories that offer us central characters just vague enough, and just weird enough, to place ourselves inside of. Sometimes we can see ourselves in the characters like Conrad in The Castle of Otranto, the ones who die before the story even begins and haunt the rest of the action as if they’d never left it, despite having been too weak to survive the world that created them. And we can’t condemn Dorian Gray or Faust: we’ve all wanted the kind of beauty and immortality they were lucky enough to be granted. Rather than existing as a symbol of fear, the devil becomes a point of access. It’s through this trick that we’re allowed to enter into the story not as impossibly romantic heroes but as brooding outsiders. And that feels, despite the genre’s rickety approach to the macabre—like the most modern thing of all.
Henry Giardina is a writer living in Massachusetts.