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I first read Melmoth the Wanderer more than a decade ago, after stumbling across a battered copy I picked up for a few pounds in a secondhand bookshop by the sea.
Although its author, Charles Maturin , might not be as well known as his near contemporaries — Shelley, Bram Stoker — he succeeded in producing a gothic horror so mind-bogglingly sophisticated that he certainly should be. I was staying in a bed and breakfast in Suffolk at the time, and in the day I walked along the beach, while my nights were spent in an armchair in the corner of my room, reading the book.
I remember it was a warm December, and in the evenings I would sit with the windows open. The curtains would flap and a salt breeze would blow into the room, and as I read I could hear the whisper of a name on the wind. Maturin was a protestant Dubliner and an eccentric priest, prone to sermonising and fond of dancing.
John sees a painting of a distant relative on the wall, dated several centuries back — a painting with cold, dead eyes. However, unless Melmoth can convince someone to agree to take his place, at the end of the years he will be consigned to burn in hell for eternity. John watches in horror from the house as a Spanish sailing ship crashes on the rocks. He looks across the cliffs and sees a shadowy stranger laughing maniacally as the wreckage is smashed upon the rocks.
The next morning, one of the survivors of the wreck — a Spanish sailor — sits with John and tells him his story. He has, he explains, been visited by a shadowy stranger while being held by the Spanish Inquisition in Madrid. After escaping, he comes across a manuscript that details the murder of a woman in the same city.