The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis
Set in the sinister monastery of the Capuchins in Madrid, The Monk is a violent tale of ambition, murder, and incest. The great struggle between maintaining monastic vows and fulfilling personal ambitions leads its main character, the monk Ambrosio, to temptation and the breaking of his vows, then to sexual obsession and rape, and finally to murder in order to conceal his guilt.
During my first year of college, in one of my British Literature Survey classes, we covered Gothic literature and I fell in love. I read a bunch of Ann Radcliffe, the ubiquitous Castle of Otranto, and Matthew Gregory Lewis. I initially signed up for the survey series, which ended up covering British Lit from its Beowulf days to modern day, because of my interest in Jane Austen, the Brontes, and Mary Shelley. Imagine my surprise when I found a whole sector of novels, a whole literary movement, I had no idea existed.
The Monk is a very interesting work from the Gothic period. Published in 1796, it’s got all the requisite horror elements, but it’s so much scarier than most of the others in the genre. Gothic novels incorporate much more horror than many of their Romantic period counterparts. The horror from this period is, well, sedate. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not exactly terrifying compared with the likes of Stephen King. ButThe Monkis definitively twenty-first century scary.
The language is flowery and beautiful and every you want from your Romantic or Victorian period novel. But it’s also downright disturbing, violent, gross, and scary. There’s rape, murder, the devil incarnate, and dead wormy babies. As in maggots. Maggoty babies. Yum.
I think this novel is slow going in the beginning. I remember kind of reading it and that at some point, being unable to stop reading it. But I never really knew whence I reached that point. It kind of crept up on me, much as the full horror of The Monk does.
I really enjoy this novel, I think, because it defies so many expectations. I think it’s a good jumping off point for people who aren’t really fans of those older novels. A lot of people think these novels are about as stuffy as the society that birthed them. For twenty-first century readers, there’s not going to be a lot of connectivity going on. But this novel kind of blends it all together. The Monk has all the beautiful language, imagery, and attention to detail you would expect from Romantic/Victorian novels, along with your more archaic prose structures, but it also has maggoty babies. That’s some Stephen King or Dean Koontz status stuff right there.