I’ve known about Melmoth the Wanderer for what seems like centuries. I’m sure I bought a very old and yellow paperback copy in the second hand bookshop in Acock’s green. Bu I’m also sure I never read it.
So it’s strange to enter its world and feel that odd sense of familiarity. It’s the tug and wash of intertextuality at work. Orphan son travels to dilapidated house of rich but miserly uncle. Kidnapped. Change the gender: Uncle Silas. The old house with its mysteries; Wuthering heights or the Jonathon Harker journal opening of Dracula . The servants sitting round the fire, with their alien natures and elliptic talk that hints at mysteries and superstitions: paintings I’m unable to name, but the plays of Synge, Jane Eyre, etcetc. Mystery and secrets in an old house: the turn of the screw, Le Fanu’s stories.
So in a good book you get that odd feel that it’s both familiar but unknown. The references in your personal reading history ghost around the edges giving it a depth it would otherwise lack, which somehow allows it freedom to operate in its own particular way. Whether one could do that deliberately is a different matter.
The thing I had forgotten, having spent most of my time recently reading things I had to read, is how novels like this require a commitment on the part of the reader. Not just to play the game, to enter the story world and accept its rules, but to be willing to give up large chunks of time to reading it and to take it at its own pace.
The gothic fear is that those who should be morally beyond reproach aren’t. Those in power are corrupt, selfish, vicious and have the will and the ability to persecute those who are genuinely innocent for the pleasure of it. The innocent are helpless.
Odd that what we take for granted was seen as perverse and horrific.