In his almost 200-year-old gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer, Irish author Charles Robert Maturin tells the story of John Melmoth, a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 150 extra years of life, and then spends the extra time searching for someone who will take over the pact for him. The story takes place in the “present” (1820); but the backstory is revealed through several “nested” story-within-a-story tales. These plot/narrative devices work back and forth through time (usually by means of information found in old books and manuscripts), until we gradually see the story of Melmoth’s life come together. The book also includes interesting religious and socio-political commentary on early-19th-century England.
John Melmoth, student at Trinity College, Dublin, having journeyed to County Wicklow for attendance at the deathbed of his miserly uncle, finds the old man, even in his last moments, tortured by avarice, and by suspicion of all around him. He whispers to John:
“I want a glass of wine, it would keep me alive for some hours, but there is not one I can trust to get it for me,—they’d steal a bottle, and ruin me.” John was greatly shocked. “Sir, for God’s sake, let ME get a glass of wine for you.” “Do you know where?” said the old man, with an expression in his face John could not understand. “No, Sir; you know I have been rather a stranger here, Sir.” “Take this key,” said old Melmoth, after a violent spasm; “take this key, there is wine in that closet,—Madeira. I always told them there was nothing there, but they did not believe me, or I should not have been robbed as I have been. At one time I said it was whisky, and then I fared worse than ever, for they drank twice as much of it.”
John took the key from his uncle’s hand; the dying man pressed it as he did so, and John, interpreting this as a mark of kindness, returned the pressure. He was undeceived by the whisper that followed,—“John, my lad, don’t drink any of that wine while you are there.” “Good God!” said John, indignantly throwing the key on the bed; then, recollecting that the miserable being before him was no object of resentment, he gave the promise required, and entered the closet, which no foot but that of old Melmoth had entered for nearly sixty years. He had some difficulty in finding out the wine, and indeed stayed long enough to justify his uncle’s suspicions,—but his mind was agitated, and his hand unsteady. He could not but remark his uncle’s extraordinary look, that had the ghastliness of fear superadded to that of death, as he gave him permission to enter his closet. He could not but see the looks of horror which the women exchanged as he approached it. And, finally, when he was in it, his memory was malicious enough to suggest some faint traces of a story, too horrible for imagination, connected with it. He remembered in one moment most distinctly, that no one but his uncle had ever been known to enter it for many years.
Before he quitted it, he held up the dim light, and looked around him with a mixture of terror and curiosity. There was a great deal of decayed and useless lumber, such as might be supposed to be heaped up to rot in a miser’s closet; but John’s eyes were in a moment, and as if by magic, riveted on a portrait that hung on the wall, and appeared, even to his untaught eye, far superior to the tribe of family pictures that are left to molder on the walls of a family mansion. It represented a man of middle age. There was nothing remarkable in the costume, or in the countenance, but THE EYES, John felt, were such as one feels they wish they had never seen, and feels they can never forget. Had he been acquainted with the poetry of Southey, he might have often exclaimed in his after-life,
“Only the eyes had life,
They gleamed with demon light.”