Twenty years ago Helen Franklin did something she cannot forgive herself for, and she has spent every day since barricading herself against its memory. But her sheltered life is about to change. A strange manuscript has come into her possession. It is filled with testimonies from the darkest chapters of human history, which all record sightings of a tall, silent woman in black, with unblinking eyes and bleeding feet: Melmoth, the loneliest being in the world. Condemned to walk the Earth forever, she tries to beguile the guilty and lure them away for a lifetime of wandering alongside her. Helen can’t stop reading, or shake the feeling that someone is watching her. As her past finally catches up with her, she too must choose which path to take.

Sarah Perry has a lot to live up to after the success of her 2016 novel The Essex Serpent, longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and winner of Overall Book of the Year at the British Book Awards. In her latest novel, Perry has made a triumphant return to the gothic themes and claustrophobic atmosphere that made her previous book such a success.

Melmoth is a retelling of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, written in 1820, in which the title character sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 150 years more time on Earth. In Perry’s updated version, Melmoth is a woman forced to witness the most terrible events in human history.

Melmoth is a dark, terrifying, clever exploration of guilt and the darkest parts of human nature, with a liberal sprinkling of gothic on top. The present day action is set in Prague and Perry does a spectacular job of bringing the beautiful city to life on the page, its cobbled streets and squares becoming the setting for events that may or may not have supernatural causes.

Compared to The Essex Serpent, in which Perry often spent pages and pages describing sky and marshland, Melmoth is pared-back in its description and weighs in at less than 300 pages. The atmosphere is nevertheless superb, and the somewhat antiquated language quickly becomes easy to read.

Though the novel asks profound questions about morality and guilt, and argues the importance of bearing witness to horrific events, its nods to gothic novels of the 19th century – the mysterious manuscript, the frequent sightings of a dark figure out of the corner of your eye – ensures it is just as entertaining as it is profound.

We meet a variety of figures through the manuscript Helen obsessively pours over, each story having one thing in common: the appearance of a wraith-like woman at times of great misery, who reaches out and urges the miserable to take her hand and walk with her. Among others, there’s Josef Hoffman, a child living in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, and Sir David Ellerby, who meets a woman who tells him of the time she encountered Melmoth. But Helen is our protagonist, a woman with sins at her back she considers so unforgiveable that she has spent her life punishing herself for them. The reveal of what she did to cause such self-hatred is handled masterfully.

This is the perfect book to read at this time of year, when the evenings are drawing in and the temperature begins to drop. Several times I found myself jumping at small noises while reading it. Prepare to sleep with the lights on.

Many thanks to Serpent’s Tail for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.