Balzac likens the hero of one of his short stories to “Moliere’s Don Juan, Goethe’s Faust, Byron’s Manfred, Maturin’s Melmoth—great allegorical figures drawn by the greatest men of genius in Europe.”
“But what is ‘Melmoth’? Why is HE classed as ‘a great allegorical figure’?” exclaimed many a surprised reader. Few had perused—few know at this day—the terrible story of Melmoth the Wanderer, half man, half devil, who has bartered away his soul for the glory of power and knowledge, and, repenting of his bargain, tries again and again to persuade some desperate human to change places with him— penetrates to the refuge of misery, the death chamber, even the madhouse, seeking one in such utter agony as to accept his help, and take his curse—but ever fails.
Why this extraordinary tale, told with wild and compelling sweep, has remained so deep in oblivion, appears immediately on a glance at the original. The author, Charles Robert Maturin, a needy, eccentric Irish clergyman of 1780–1824, could cause intense suspense and horror—could read keenly into human motives—could teach an awful moral lesson in the guise of fascinating fiction, but he could not stick to a long story with simplicity. His dozens of shifting scenes, his fantastic coils of “tales within tales” sadly perplex the reader of “Melmoth” in the first version. It is hoped, however, that the present selection, by its directness and the clearness of the story thread, may please the modern reader better than the involved original, and bring before a wider public some of the most gripping descriptions ever penned in English.
In Volume IV of these stories comes a tale, “Melmoth Reconciled,” which Balzac himself wrote, while under the spell of Maturin’s “great allegorical figure.” Here the unhappy being succeeds in his purpose. The story takes place in mocking, careless Paris, “that branch establishment of hell”; a cashier, on the eve of embezzlement and detection, cynically accedes to Melmoth’s terms, and accepts his help—with what unlooked-for results, the reader may see.