Sarah Perry is terrifying her readers, and she couldn’t be happier about it. "Susan Hill said she had to move [the book] off her nightstand as she couldn’t sleep with it next to her. Susan Hill!" Perry exclaims, delighted, when we meet at her publisher’s office in north London. Hill, of course, wrote the chilling ghost story The Woman in Black, and knows more than most about how to send an icy shiver of fear down the spine of the reader.
The book that caused Hill to rearrange her bedroom is Melmoth and it is not perhaps one to be read at night, or alone in an empty house, by those of a nervous disposition. A thrillingly atmospheric thumping Gothic horror with the requisite bumps and shocks, it is also a novel that asks profound and powerful questions about morality, mercy and redemption.
Set in contemporary Prague, it tells of 42-year-old exile Helen Franklin who, 20 years earlier, did something so terrible that she cannot forgive herself. Now she denies herself every comfort and pleasure—love, good food, beautiful things—as a form of penance. Helen has permitted herself one friendship, which came about by accident, with a man named Karel, who passes on a manuscript that has come into his possession. It is filled with testimonies from people who lived through the darkest times in human history, periods that have mostly been forgotten. Each account records a sighting of a tall, silent woman dressed in flowing black with bleeding feet, her baleful eyes unblinking: Melmoth. Legend has it that Melmoth is condemned to walk the Earth for eternity, as she seeks out those who are guilty or in despair and attempts to lure them away to wander alongside her.
As a sceptical Helen reads, she senses that she too is being watched, and that feeling of creeping unease and dread is one that readers of Melmoth will share—and it’s a feeling Perry set out specifically to provoke. "The true Gothic is a sensation, not a genre," she says firmly, in her distinctive high, clear voice. "It is not about, ‘There’s a candle in a window and a girl in a nightgown, and a maze.’ It’s not about that. It’s about how you feel; the reader must feel as the characters feel. [Readers] must feel that sensation, and if you don’t do that then it’s sort of Gothic-esque but it’s not the real Gothic."
Only a scholar of the Gothic (as Perry is: she wrote her doctoral thesis at Royal Holloway on the subject) is likely to be familiar with the source material which inspired
her, Charles Robert Maturin’s 1820 novel Melmoth the Wanderer—although Serpent’s Tail, anticipating renewed interest, is to publish a new edition in October  with an introduction from Perry. She read the Victorian classic years ago and describes it as "a formative experience because it showed me you can have your cake and eat it". In literature, she points out, there never used to be "a division between noble, literary fiction and popular fiction that was entertaining and had plots and villains". Perry cites Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley as examples of novelists "who were writing books that were incredibly gratifying, imaginative and formally experimental in a way that satisfied the reader, but also deeply serious and profound, both politically and morally. I’m worried that people have
lost the idea that you can do both."
The other idea she had was to write a female villain. She was very young when she realised that all the great eponymous monsters of literature were men: Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, Milton’s Satan. "I remember as a child, saying one day, ‘I will write a monster and it will be a woman’." She decided to pay homage to Melmoth the Wanderer and make her Melmoth a woman. But, having had the idea, she then held off writing for years, "partly out of a sense that I wasn’t accomplished enough to do it, and partly because I was so concerned about being accused of a lack of originality building on someone else’s work". Perry’s Melmoth is "a tribute" in its matryoshka doll-like structure—stories within stories within stories— as well as in the title of the monster.
Melmoth is a novel concerned with morality, and it is something that occupies Perry, who says it’s important to her that "my writing bears moral scrutiny. I know that sounds really priggish, and I’ve tried to think of it in other ways, but the only way I can carry on doing what I do is if I believe that it matters.
"What I wanted to talk about was the act of bearing witness as a moral obligation," she says. "When I began to think about Melmoth, I began to think of her curse as being seeing what we can’t choose not to see. I wanted to write about denied or forgotten or marginalised communities and people." The personal testimonies that Helen reads are set during time periods ranging from the Second World War in Czechoslovakia, to the persecution of the protestant martyrs in mid-16th century England and, most harrowing of all, the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century. "I wanted to force the reader to do what Melmoth has had no choice but to do," says Perry, "to face things that they don’t know about". Structurally it was also a challenge "to use all these [historical] fragments without losing the overarching mystery of, ‘What has Helen done?’ and, ‘Is Melmoth watching her?’"
Turning back time
Although the novel is set in contemporary Prague, there is a sense of timelessness to Perry’s writing, but she says it isn’t deliberate. "It’s just how it comes out. I think it’s partly a function of my upbringing..." She was raised as a Strict Baptist in a household with no TV or pop music, but lots of books, and pre-Raphaelites instead of posters from Smash Hits on her bedroom wall. "To me the past has never felt very far away. [My work] will probably always read like it was written by somebody who was born in 1890."
Perry considers Melmoth to be the final book in a loose trilogy exploring the Gothic in three different ways, following her début After Me Comes the Flood ("contemporary psychological Gothic") and the barnstorming The Essex Serpent ("the Victorian monster Gothic"), which was Waterstones’ Book of the Year in 2016, and won the Fiction and Overall Book of the Year at the 2017 British Book Awards. Of the pressure to follow such a big book, she says simply: "You can’t write second- guessing reviews and criticisms. You just have to write the thing that’s there."
She’s working on her next novel and has the characters, form, setting and themes all thought out but, interestingly, she won’t actually start to write until a certain ritual is completed. She explains: "I write the opening paragraph in my head until I can recite it. When I know that is right and I have it verbatim, then I sit down, open a document and start writing." She is happy to be flexing a different set of authorial muscles with the work-in-progress, she says, "although knowing me, I’ll get to the end and it will be another bloody Gothic novel!"