Sarah Perry on ‘Melmoth,’ Monsters, and Making Her Readers Feel Responsible for Mass Atrocity

“It was important to me that the ‘villains’ in the book were ordinary people, because readers are ordinary people, and people who do terrible things are often ordinary people.”

Bridey Heing | Longreads | October 2018 | 8 minutes (2,039 words)

 

Sarah Perry’s novels have been praised for their distinctive voice and haunting subjects. Her atmospheric 2014 debut After Me Comes the Flood revealed Perry to be a unique writer of disquieting tales laced through with an aura of mystery, a reputation solidified by the 2016 publication of The Essex Serpent, a work of historical fiction. But her latest book, Melmoth, feels like more than just a novel; it feels like a call to action. In Melmoth, the nature of complicity and the manifestation of guilt are a central focus, spinning Perry’s eerie storytelling into important lessons and questions for our modern world.

Helen Franklin has been living in Prague for years, in a kind of self-imposed exile from her native England. She carries a significant sense of guilt for an unspecified wrongdoing in her youth, for which she tries to atone by isolating herself and living austerely. But even in this self-created loneliness, Helen meets and makes friends with a couple named Karel and Thea. When Karel suddenly begins talking about a mysterious woman monster called Melmoth the Witness, Helen and Thea dismiss her as a myth. But when Karel disappears and Helen begins reading the testimonies left behind by those who had been made to walk the Earth with Melmoth, witnessing alongside her the atrocities carried out by mankind, Helen wonders if she could be Melmoth’s next victim.

Weaving together disturbing true, yet barely remembered, historical atrocities with a gripping story of personal terror, Melmoth poses questions about who bears responsibility in mankind’s darkest moments, and how individuals grapple with guilt. Perry spoke to Longreads about writing a female monster, the place of myth and fear in storytelling, and active morality from her home in the UK.

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In both Melmoth and The Essex Serpent, you blend folklore and reality in the narrative in such an interesting way. It makes the lines between the two so blurred. What, as a writer, do you feel is offered, in terms of perspective, by narratives built around exploring that blurred line?

I’m very interested in the way shared storytelling, shared myth, and shared fear do a number of things. It binds communities together in quite strange ways, so with The Essex Serpent in particular, fear of a myth or legend was something binding them together but driving them apart as well. It’s an ancient human desire to tell stories to each other and try to understand the world through storytelling.

I’m particularly interested in fear, and storytelling that is designed to provoke fear and anxiety, and how we all put our own anxieties and fears onto myths and legends. For both The Essex Serpent and Melmoth, even when people don’t think [the monsters] are real, they’re still scared of them, because they’re able to invest their own anxieties and their own worries in this kind of legend.

I guess what I’m really interested in is how, even when you don’t believe in ghosts and monsters, you’re still afraid of them, and why? What does that mean for our sense of reality, and our sense of ourselves, and our sense of fear and transgression, if you think you’re going to be punished or someone is watching you? For me it’s a really interesting way of exploring those boundaries between what we’re afraid of and what we believe or don’t believe.

I’m really interested in… how, even when you don’t believe in ghosts and monsters, you’re still afraid of them.

To turn to Melmoth specifically, where did this novel come from? I read in a previous interview that Melmoth was based on a character from another work?

In 1820 a novel by Charles Maturin was published called Melmoth the Wanderer. His Melmoth is 150 years old, male, has sold his soul to the devil, and is a wanderer. The character is indebted to the legend of the Wandering Jew. I read this book about ten years ago and I wanted to write a kind of tribute to Melmoth, but I wanted to make Melmoth a woman. So my job was to create my own monster, my own female monster, and to create an origin myth for her, because I wanted my Melmoth to be older and predate Maturin’s Melmoth. Even though the original Melmoth novel is 200 years old, I’ve created a legend around her that is from the time of Christ, which is a fun intertextual way to play with existing texts.

In the novel, Melmoth travels the world witnessing atrocities. The ones you highlight, however, are ones that are lesser known or aren’t immediately recognizable, so there’s a sense of discovering these events as you’re reading, unless you’re well versed in history. Was that something you intended for the reader?

I wanted Melmoth to be a witness, and it is partly a response to what is going on in the world at the moment — a general move towards the right wing, and increases in xenophobia and racism, and general unrest all over the world really. So my Melmoth became a witness and her duty, if you like, is to witness humanity at its worst.

In order to do that I wrote about periods of history that aren’t as well known as other periods, so for example the Armenian genocide is denied and not officially recognized as a genocide, and the treatment of German speaking Czechs at the end of the Second World War is not something many people know about. It was important to me to use the novel to look at periods of history that are not as well known as they perhaps should be.

The punishment Melmoth metes out is to make people walk the earth with her, just witnessing. Can you speak a little about the choice to make witnessing atrocities, rather than, say, taking part in them, a central facet of the novel?

I’m interested in how we live in the world, as good and moral people, and what can we do when there’s nothing we can do. I think it was Primo Levi, in his Holocaust memoir If This Is A Man, who wrote about the act of bearing witness as being a moral obligation. I think the novel pleads the case that to merely stand witness, and to bravely and courageously and compassionately be prepared to watch what is happening, is moral in itself and a moral duty.

That idea came to me a couple years ago at the peak of the refugee crisis in Europe, when you would see photos of these poor Syrian children drowning in the Mediterranean, and I didn’t want to look. I didn’t want to see pictures of drowned children. I found myself avoiding the news because I didn’t want to see it, and then I began to see that as a moral failing on my part.

Me not watching doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. It’s not like if you pretend it isn’t happening it isn’t there.

What’s interesting to me about the way Melmoth appears to target individuals is that they are all guilty, more or less, of complicity — none of them are the big shots, so to speak. What drew you to exploring that sense of the individual within contexts of collective guilt?

So often we think there are good people in the world and bad people in the world. The bad people do terrible things, and we know who they are and what they’ve done. The good people don’t do terrible things, and obviously we’re good and we know we would never do these terrible things.

But that’s not how it works. So many of the great atrocities in the world are carried out by perfectly ordinary people who think of themselves as being good people, but who sign the paperwork or don’t speak up when they should speak up, and they are just as responsible for these terrible things happening. It’s intended to be a very uncomfortable book in many ways because it says to people that they don’t get to rest on their laurels as a good person because who knows what you might be responsible for unless you actually act morally and have moral courage.

It was important to me that the “villains” in the book were ordinary people, because readers are ordinary people, and people who do terrible things are often ordinary people.

Much of the book is documenting that complicity in a larger machinery that carries out crimes against humanity, but the story centers on Helen, who carries a guilt that is far more intimate in nature, which to be honest caught me off guard. And without giving too much away, I found her evolution fascinating. Did you know going in that you wanted Helen to have a moment of resolution?

Being caught off guard is something I really wanted people to feel when they read the book because it is a gothic novel primarily, and an important function of the gothic is that the reader is caught off guard by it, and they feel uncomfortable and uncanny about it.

The ending came to me because the book had become terribly bleak, and I felt that actually I didn’t want to write a book that had no hope in it. I wanted to write a book that had a sense of grace and redemption available to people, because I do think life very often offers us the opportunity to make redress, to compensate for the things we’ve done. At the end of the first draft I realized I wanted that to be the case, and to give people the choice that they can go with Melmoth or they can say, “No, I believe I can find grace.”

My Melmoth became a witness and her duty, if you like, is to witness humanity at its worst.

I was also struck by the way these characters seem to be both drawn to Melmoth and in terror of her — they want her to approach yet fear her. And so many felt compelled to write a sort of testament to their own wrong doing as a result of her influence or her presence. What does that relationship mean to you, in terms of how these characters process their guilt or their sense of having done wrong?

It was really important that people weren’t just disgusted by Melmth, for a number of reasons. Partly because I wanted to write a really great female monster — as the great monsters in literature tend to be male — and to give her this seductive quality, a loving quality, and a loneliness that makes her seem very appealing. She’s not violent or aggressive in a way a male monster might be. Part of what makes her so terrifying is that she’s appealing to people and she’s saying, “I’m so lonely and I know all the dreadful things you did, but I still want you with me. No one else would want you, but I do.” So it was important to me that the character and hopefully the reader feel a combination of the two things — that you can be afraid but seduced at the same time.

We’re living through times when complicity is something many of us are thinking about more and more — what does it mean to be complicit, how can it be avoided while going about our day-to-day lives. If Melmoth has a lesson for how to grapple with these questions, what do you feel it is?

I really think it’s about actively living as part of a community in a moral way and about active morality, because many of us have a passive goodness. We’re passively horrified by things, we’re passively convinced that the world is going to hell in a handcart, but what Melmoth is saying is that we have to act in some way, because not acting can make you complicit, and that is what Melmoth has seen. She has seen that the failure to act and the failure to have courage is complicity.

You don’t get to be good by doing nothing. It’s that old line that the only thing needed for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing, and she’s saying you can’t opt out.

You have to act.

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Bridey Heing is a writer focusing on world literature and culture. She is an editorial adviser at The London Magazine and a contributing editor at World Literature Today. She has written for web and print publications in the US and the UK, including The Washington PostPacific StandardThe Daily BeastThe EconomistThe Times Literary Supplement, and Bust.

Editor: Dana Snitzky