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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.

As King writes, the settings and plots of Ann Radcliffe, who even more than Walpole popularized the Gothic novel, "would be familiar to any modern-day reader of Harlequin or Silhouette Romances. There are rooms reputed to be haunted by ghosts, hidden corridors, and sinister fellows like Count Montoni; but in the end there is a rational explanation for everything, and the heroine trundles happily off to the altar with her virginity and her serene worldview intact."

Not for Lewis such "rational explanations." The truth for his characters usually turns out to be far worse than they have imagined. Though Lewis borrows some of the Radcliffean apparatus (and, oddly, a number of her characters' names), his idea of storytelling owes more to Shakespeare's strange younger contemporary Webster, who has one of his characters torment a virtuous woman by surrounding her with dancing, screaming madmen and by showing her cunningly wrought waxwork figures intended to convince her that her husband and children are dead. (The stage direction Gives her a dead man's hand is a memorable one.)

BUT LEWIS, who has no need to worry about what can convincingly be represented on stage, is free to go far beyond the most sinister moments in Webster--and he's happy to exercise his freedom: Stephen King doesn't call him "the Johnny Rotten of the Gothic novel" for nothing. Such are the horrors Lewis puts his characters through that, when we are told of one minor character that "in an excess of passion She broke a blood-vessel, and expired in the course of a few hours," the only surprise is that it didn't happen to the lot of them.

Lewis's narrative exuberance is certainly that of a young man--the book reminds me of the screenplays written by over-caffeinated undergraduates--but that exuberance is also the key to the book's success and lasting influence. By the time Lewis is done, few standard narrative tricks remain in his bag; and almost every scene reminds us of some other story, whether the Prometheus myths, Sleeping Beauty, some of the stories in Boccaccio's "Decameron," or "Paradise Lost." There's a lengthy story-within-the-story that is obviously derived from "Don Quixote," and just when you think Lewis can't throw anything else into the cauldron, he comes up with a riff on Oedipus.

Now, to some degree Lewis's imagination is simply that of the typical adolescent: When he describes for us a magical mirror that enables a man to watch an innocent girl disrobe before taking a bath, or when the same man uses what amounts to a date-rape drug on the same girl--only to be thwarted at the last moment by the sudden appearance of her mother at the bedroom door--we realize that it is but a few short steps from "The Monk" to "Animal House" or "American Pie." But however short those steps, they are significant, for in Lewis's fictional universe such instruments and charms are the province of black magic and the worship of Satan.

Lewis leavens his lumps of misery with humor, in what he clearly hopes is a Shakespearean manner--he even has a Porteress at a convent gate who is supposed to remind us of the Porter in "Macbeth." (Indeed, almost every chapter in "The Monk" is preceded by an epigraph from Shakespeare; the very first one lets us know that Lewis's Ambrosio, the monk of the book's title, is modeled on Angelo from "Measure for Measure.") And there's a nice moment when one Dame Jacintha exclaims, "Oh! I am the most unfortunate woman alive! My House is filled with Ghosts and dead Bodies, and the Lord knows what besides; Yet I am sure, nobody likes such company less than I do."

But such comic relief notwithstanding, Lewis is forthright in setting the moral context for his tale: The deceits, imprisonments, tortures, rapes, and murders that litter the book's pages are clearly marked as the Devil's work. Perhaps, as in Mozart and da Ponte's "Don Giovanni" (another work "The Monk" seems to have drawn on), the presence of dark spirits and supernatural powers is just part of the show--adding thrills and chills--but it has its effect nonetheless. When, at that opera's end, the animate statue of the Commendatore cries out for Don Giovanni to repent, then drags the rake down into the flames of Hell, that's not merely the frisson of aesthetic pleasure you feel at the back of your neck; it's the almost imperceptible rising of your suppressed recognition that sins will be punished.

Likewise, the rapidly progressing degradation of Ambrosio--who, as King points out, is both the villain and the protagonist of this story--makes a powerful impression. Long before I read the novel, I was aware of the depths to which Ambrosio would sink, but even halfway through the book I couldn't imagine how Lewis would deliver him to those depths. Yet the descent, when described, was convincing; I saw how someone able to achieve, even temporarily, a seemingly plausible justification for an evil act can then progress to more and more serious ones; and as long as the faculty of self-justification holds out, the descent can continue until there is no depravity left to sink to.

What is most remarkable is Lewis's ability to trace this descent without ever making Ambrosio into a mere monster; he is recognizably human throughout, and his conscience never falls silent, though its voice grows weaker and weaker. When he pays the price for his sins, one is shocked for a moment at the horror of it--until one pauses to catalogue his crimes, which have proliferated malignantly; then it all makes sense. Who knows what Matthew Lewis really thought of the moral world he created? Such a shockingly profound retribution for Ambrosio may well be the familiar tribute that vice pays to virtue; but it's a tribute well paid. No one in "Animal House" had to come face to face with Satan.

Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois. His most recent book is "A Theology of Reading: the Hermeneutics of Love" (Westview, 2002).