The Magazine

The Horror! The Horror!

"Monk" Lewis's Gothic masterpiece.

Feb 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 20 • By ALAN JACOBS
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The Monk
by Matthew Lewis
Oxford University Press, 442 pp., $20

THE LONDON STAGE, in the time of the first Queen Elizabeth, fairly swarmed with Spaniards and Italians. There are Antonios and Antonias, Lorenzos, Isabellas, and Claudios beyond counting. Shakespeare gives us both a Borachio and a Bassanio, neither of whom is to be confused with John Webster's Brachiano. The student of Elizabethan drama, lost among the Mediterranean vowels, quickly becomes thankful for the unusual (Hieronymo, Iago) and even the frankly bizarre (Ambitioso, Supervacuo).

But even if they had less similar names, it would still be difficult to keep all these people straight, because most of them behave the same way. As good Latins, they are passionate and superstitious. They instantly obey the prompting of the emotional moment and live to regret it (unless they're murdered before regret can set in). Lust and vengeance are their prime movers. Or, to encapsulate the whole matter: They're southern and Catholic. What else could a sober, Protestant Englishman, protected from excess of passion not only by his faith but also by the damp cool weather, expect from people doubly addled by sunstroke and false religion?

Two centuries later, when a nineteen-year-old Oxford student named Matthew Lewis wrote his Gothic horror tale "The Monk" (1796), the English attitude toward their neighbors from the south seemed to have changed little. Lewis populated his book with an Antonio, a Lorenzo, a Matilda, and an Ambrosio, set them down in Madrid, and counted on all the stock responses to kick in. (Oddly, he gave the Marquis de las Cisternas the forename Raymond; the absence of the ultimate "o" is inexplicable.)

THE GENRE of the English Gothic novel--ornate, sensational, filled with all the trappings of murders, ghosts, and ruined abbeys--is usually said to begin with Horace Walpole's "The Castle of Otranto" (1764). It ran through such books as William Beckford's "Vathek" (1786), Ann Radcliffe's "The Mysteries of Udolpho" (1794), and Jane Austen's parody "Northanger Abbey" (written in 1798). "Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff," says young, foolish Mr. Thorpe in "Northanger Abbey"; "there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since 'Tom Jones,' except 'The Monk'; I read that t'other day; but as for all the others, they are the stupidest things in creation." Foolish or not, the Gothic would reach a second efflorescence in the early nineteenth century with Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" (1818) and Charles Robert Maturin's "Melmoth the Wanderer" (1820).

Of all these, "The Monk" is the most ornate and sensational, and the true classic of its kind, in large part because it takes its supernatural trappings far more seriously than its rivals. Oxford University Press is right to reissue it, though this edition has problems. It's a reprint of an earlier Oxford World's Classics text, with the addition of hard covers and a new and entirely appropriate introduction by Stephen King. What King has to say is interesting, especially as he seems to feel a close kinship with Matthew Lewis, but he gets the name wrong of one of the main characters (it is Matilda, not Martha), and the book is littered with dozens of pointless asterisks--pointless because the explanatory notes which they once indicated have been excised from this edition, presumably to make room for King's introduction. Somebody at Oxford University Press should have been more careful.

To get the full Gothic feeling of "The Monk," all you have to do is plunge right in. By the end of the second chapter we have had love at first sight, a secret letter intercepted by a dangerous stranger, a pregnant nun's botched escape from her convent, a young woman disguised as a monastic novice, dire prophecies by a wild Gypsy woman, a threatened suicide, the venom of a poisonous "Cientipedoro" serpent sucked from a wound by the victim's besotted lover, and the sexual corruption of the most revered preacher in Madrid--all presented to us in prose like this:

The Friar's eyes followed with dread the course of the dagger. She had torn open her habit, and her bosom was half exposed. The weapon's point rested upon her left breast: And Oh! that was such a breast! The Moon-beams darting full upon it, enabled the Monk to observe its dazzling whiteness. His eye dwelt with insatiable avidity upon the beauteous Orb.

It is a style appropriate to Spanish Catholics, at least as the English imagined them. But Lewis was not content to stop there. His genius was to combine these long-cherished stereotypes with what was at the time the new genre of the Gothic, and to turn up the heat quite dramatically under the whole vile mixture--a mixture which we must imagine bubbling nastily in a black cauldron.